House approves plan to replace viaduct with a tunnel
After years of study and debate, legislation that calls for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel appears headed for state law.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA -- After years of study and debate, legislation that calls for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel appears headed for state law.
The state House Wednesday night passed a bill, by a 53-43 vote, that directs the state to replace the viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel under First Avenue.
The bill is expected to pass the Senate, which approved an earlier version of the legislation. Gov. Chris Gregoire also supports the measure.
"If you listen carefully you will hear a giant sigh. I think it is a sigh of relief and it's not coming just from the people who can see the Space Needle. It's coming from people across the state who are saying, 'When are you going to get done with this project and move on? When will a decision be made?' " House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, told lawmakers.
"We are making one tonight that is monumental in scope," she said.
The vote came after House Democratic leaders added a controversial provision to the bill -- at the insistence of House Speaker Frank Chopp -- that requires downtown Seattle property owners to pay for any cost overruns related to digging the tunnel.
Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said the city doesn't like the requirement but won't oppose the legislation. The city supports a tunnel to replace the viaduct.
"If this makes them feel good that they're sticking it to Seattle, somehow, I guess that's the price. Let's just get the thing over with and get moving on the actual project," he said in an interview.
Ceis said it sets a precedent that should worry other local governments. "If this is going to be a new policy of the state, I guess all cities and counties need to be put on notice that if you've got a state highway, I guess we're all going to be responsible for cost overruns on their projects. I think this is astonishing."
Gregoire supports the requirement for the tunnel project. Pearse Edwards, the governor's spokesman, noted in an e-mail that "we don't envision any cost overruns to occur on this project, especially given the drop in road construction prices coupled with the healthy contingency built into the original proposal."
Clibborn defended the move, saying in an interview, "I think a lot of people feel like this is something that Seattle really gets a huge benefit (from) and there should be some way to have them participate."
The city of Seattle earlier committed to raising $930 million for its share of the overall project, including a new Elliott Bay sea wall, promenade and other surface improvements. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has said the city might use a downtown property tax, along with other taxes, fees and grants, to cover those costs.
The cost-overrun amendment aside, the House vote represents a significant victory for tunnel supporters.
Chopp was widely viewed as the biggest political obstacle to the $4.3 billion project, which includes $3.1 billion for a stacked four-lane tunnel and an elevated segment through Sodo.
Chopp had pushed his own plan for the viaduct replacement: an elevated freeway along the waterfront with retail, office and living space below it. He also has expressed concerns about the tunnel's cost and whether the state would be on the hook for potential cost overruns.
It wasn't clear until recently if he'd even allow a vote on the proposal.
Talk of replacing the 50-year-old waterfront freeway intensified after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake left it damaged.
Lawmakers, transportation officials and city leaders have argued since then over whether to build another elevated roadway, dig a tunnel or create some kind of surface alternative.
The viaduct bill caps state funding for the tunnel at $2.4 billion, subject to reconsideration after an expert review panel updates the cost estimate. It also states that for costs more than that amount, "no more than $400 million of the additional costs shall be financed with toll revenue. Any costs in excess of ($2.8 billion) shall be borne by property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct with the deep-bore tunnel."
State money could only be used for digging the tunnel and removing the existing viaduct. The bill specifies the state will not pay for utility relocations, sea wall replacement or waterfront promenade improvements.
The measure also requires updated cost estimates for construction of the tunnel and the viaduct-replacement project as a whole by Jan. 1, 2010.
Lawmakers who oppose the tunnel argued Wednesday night that it would divert too much state funding to one project, leaving dozens of other transportation projects across the state without the money to move forward.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or email@example.com
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