Poll, potential vote muddy Highway 99 tunnel project
Even as opponents of a deep-bored Highway 99 tunnel near their goal of an August ballot measure, the people of Seattle are nowhere close to a consensus about what should be built.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Even as opponents of a Highway 99 tunnel near their goal of an August ballot measure, the people of Seattle are nowhere close to a consensus about what should be built.
A new Elway Poll shows neither a new or repaired viaduct, a tunnel, nor surface-street improvements would win majority support. The results are not surprising to people who have followed the numerous plans that have come and gone over the past decade, without consensus.
Also Monday, the Protect Seattle Now campaign announced it had gathered 27,721 signatures and will file those Tuesday with the City Clerk's Office. Although many will be invalid, organizers expect to exceed the needed 16,503 signatures to qualify for a citizen vote.
The ballot measure wouldn't actually let voters decide on a highway option. Instead, it seeks to repeal agreements that the City Council approved with the state Department of Transportation for tunnel-related street use, utility relocations and insurance.
Seattle's City Charter instructs the City Council to forward referendums to the ballot, but pro-tunnel groups might be considering a legal roadblock to the anti-tunnel referendum. City Attorney Pete Holmes' office said he will have no comment until after the signatures are filed Tuesday.
"By submitting these signatures, the people of Seattle have earned the right to vote on this risky project," the Protect Seattle Now campaign said in a statement.
In his survey of 405 city voters, local pollster Stuart Elway found that 55 percent want the measure on the ballot.
All were asked which option they'd prefer if they were to vote:
• 38 percent favored a new or repaired viaduct;
• 35 percent favored a tunnel;
• 21 percent favored new and improved surface streets;
• 6 percent had no opinion.
"People think we should have a vote on this, but having a vote isn't going to clarify the issue," Elway said.
Don Stark, lobbyist for the pro-tunnel group Tunnel + Transit, said the numbers are not surprising. In the absence of a clear winner, politicians must decide, he argues. "It's the exact reason why we have representative democracy," he said. "We elect officials to make responsible decisions, and here we are."
Referendum spokesman Drew Paxton of the Sierra Club favors improved surface streets and transit.
"We're going to have plenty of time to talk more about that option" because of the referendum, he said.
An immediate question is whether the mere filing of the referendum will delay Seattle's tunnel agreements with the state. The City Charter says an ordinance being challenged will be suspended once a referendum is filed.
Four legislative leaders, apparently nervous about the timeline, asked state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond last week what a delay in the agreements taking effect would cost the state. Her answer was $54 million during final design through August, plus $20 million per month if agreements aren't in effect by then, which would delay the whole project.
The state hopes for an environmental-impact statement to be approved by late summer, with excavation of the south tunnel portal to start immediately afterward.
The state Department of Transportation already has spent more than $200 million on the tunnel, including engineering, bid documents and real estate.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said it would be a "huge mistake" to send the anti-tunnel referendum to voters. She said the city has gone through 10 years of study, many options to replace the viaduct, and countless hours of debate. A pair of advisory measures in March 2007 found neither elevated nor tunnel concepts reaching 50 percent approval.
But Council President Richard Conlin said his duty as an elected official is to forward the referendum, unless blocked by a court decision.
Even if the referendum makes the ballot — and wins — a tunnel might prevail. State lawmakers approved a tunnel and most of its funding two years ago; the construction contract is signed; and so-called "essential public facilities" generally take priority over individual cities' wishes, under the Growth Management Act.
Stark expects litigation right away. "It could be the state that would take that action, private people, or some combination," he said.
Times reporter Lynn Thompson contributed to this report.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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