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Originally published October 5, 2009 at 12:09 AM | Page modified October 5, 2009 at 1:30 PM

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City to sign deal soon for viaduct-replacement tunnel

The Seattle City Council is about to sign an agreement to take on nearly a billion dollars in projects to help with the state plan to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Eight years after the Nisqually earthquake, the Seattle City Council is about to sign an agreement to take on nearly a billion dollars in projects to help with the state plan to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel.

In it, Seattle accepts responsibility for streets, a new sea wall, parking, a waterfront promenade and maybe a streetcar, totaling up to $927 million. The costs, agreed to by the governor, Seattle mayor and King County executive in January, are on top of the $3.1 billion state highway project.

Does this month's paperwork really lock in the Big Bore? Or does it merely give the illusion of a done deal, to hinder mayoral candidate and tunnel opponent Mike McGinn?

The agreement does not allocate money, and no new taxes have been proposed.

But it is one step toward construction. If anyone wants to stop the tunnel, it would mean not only fighting the Legislature, but mustering five council votes, said Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis.

A final council vote on the agreement is expected Oct. 19.

Councilmember Nick Licata, a tunnel critic, said the agreement is being rushed — before the council gets time to examine the taxes and budgets. "It seems to me there are some folks panicking about the mayor's election, and they want to close the lid on a decision."

Council President Richard Conlin, a tunnel supporter, said Mayor Greg Nickels is pushing the issue in his final weeks, after losing in the August primary. "Clearly the mayor wanted the council engaged and onboard to carry this forward now, while he was still in office."

McGinn calls the agreement a political tactic to discourage debate.

"I'm always struck by the fact they tell us it's a done deal, then they have to do something to make it a done deal," he said. "A new City Council is still going to have to raise taxes, increase utility rates, put an LID [neighborhood property taxes] out to the public."

McGinn has also said the state lacks a full funding plan for the tunnel. He notes Gov. Chris Gregoire hasn't issued a strategy to collect $400 million in necessary tolls.

Seattle mayoral candidate Joe Mallahan, who supports a tunnel, called his rival good at opposing others — the governor, the Legislature, now the City Council.

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"I'll be managing the Alaskan Way Viaduct project," Mallahan said. "The biggest opportunity for cost overruns is delay."

David Dye, deputy state transportation secretary, said the city agreement has been in the works for a while and isn't a response to McGinn's campaign.

Dye said state leaders talked to the city about writing an agreement last spring, right after lawmakers passed a bill earmarking $2.4 billion in gas taxes and federal bridge-building funds for the tunnel, and an elevated Sodo interchange. "I actually wish we had gotten the agreement done sooner," Dye said.

Ceis says the mayor's team was focusing on other details and "it was an oversight on our part not to go to the City Council earlier, to memorialize what the mayor, the governor and county executive agreed to."

The state believes a city agreement provides a signal to contractors that a tunnel is on solid political ground.

A winning bidder for an interchange in Sodo is to be picked Jan. 8, while companies are due to make proposals on the tunnel below First Avenue next spring. The state Department of Transportation is doing soil tests and paying tunneling experts millions of dollars to help design a project that just passed the Legislature this spring.

"By next spring, if there were not a clear indication that the city and state are on the same page, would private companies put millions on the table to develop a detailed (proposal)?" Dye said.

"We are doing this extremely quickly, for the size of project we're talking about," he said. "It is extremely critical we get this tied down now, so we are in a position to award the contract by the end of 2010."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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