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Originally published Monday, February 28, 2011 at 10:57 AM

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Seattle City Council overrides McGinn's tunnel veto

The Seattle City Council voted 8-1 to override Mayor Mike McGinn's veto and go ahead with its agreements with the state to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Exactly 10 years to the day after the Nisqually earthquake exposed the vulnerability of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the Seattle City Council voted 8-1 Monday to override Mayor Mike McGinn's veto and go forward with agreements for a replacement tunnel.

A contentious public hearing that proceeded the vote revealed the deep divisions over how to best replace the Highway 99 viaduct and move traffic along the waterfront. Tunnel opponents shouted down City Council members who defended their votes, while union workers in hard hats and reflective vests shouted their approval for a project that could mean thousands of construction jobs.

"We have a responsibility to protect lives," said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen before he voted to override McGinn's veto. "This viaduct is fragile. The mayor is being reckless and irresponsible in encouraging people to delay and slow this project down."

Councilmember Mike O'Brien, who cast the lone "no" vote on the override, failed to win any support from his colleagues for a resolution to send the issue to voters.

But representatives of two initiative campaigns aimed at stopping the $2 billion tunnel announced Monday they have joined forces to collect signatures to place the tunnel agreements with the state on the Aug. 16 primary ballot.

The supporters, which include the Sierra Club and Real Change newspaper, have until the end of the month to get the needed 16,503 signatures of Seattle voters.

"I guess I head out to the streets and try to collect signatures," said O'Brien, who with McGinn has argued that the tunnel project could leave city taxpayers responsible for cost overruns, provides no money for transit and threatens historic buildings in Pioneer Square.

Tunnel opponents and supporters disagree whether the referendum would be legally binding. Tayloe Washburn, former chairman of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and a land-use attorney, said local jurisdictions don't have the power to overturn a state project.

Drew Paxton, an organizer for the new coalition, Protect Seattle Now, said, "We believe it would be legally binding."

The state already has signed a contract to build the Highway 99 tunnel. Groundbreaking can't start until the federal government approves an environmental-impact statement in late summer. At that point, the council plans to approve a second phase of agreements with the state, a final step before construction starts.

More than 100 people packed the council chambers Monday.

Tunnel opponents waved "Our Money, Our Vote" signs, while union members and other tunnel supporters hoisted placards that said "I dig the tunnel."

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Many who testified noted the anniversary of the Nisqually earthquake.

Council President Richard Conlin showed photos of the fatal collapse of an Oakland, Calif., viaduct in a 1989 earthquake.

Vlad Oustimovitch, an architect who served on the stakeholders group that considered options to replace the viaduct, said natural disasters over the past decade have devastated aging bridges and buildings in many cities, including earthquakes in Chile and New Zealand.

Some tunnel opponents called references to earthquakes "scare tactics." Others questioned the $2 billion cost and the financing.

"We're borrowing from the future to pay for the present," said Steven Reisler, a Seattle attorney, who accused the council of "magical thinking" because about $700 million in funding for the project hasn't been identified yet.

The agreements with the state approved by the council describe how the city will work with the state Department of Transportation on scheduling, utilities and right of way. They also spell out risk and liability for the project.

The majority of the council argued the agreements protect the city's interests in a state highway project that will be built with or without city cooperation.

Councilmember Nick Licata, who was not initially a supporter of the tunnel, admonished the anti-tunnel crowd that its opposition was unrealistic.

He noted the state's commitment to pay for a tunnel, and the lack of state funding for any other method of replacing the viaduct.

"I understand you're angry. I'm angry," Licata said. "We have $2.2 billion [for a tunnel]. We have zero for a surface/transit option. We have to go forward with something that at least has an opportunity for success."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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