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Originally published December 16, 2010 at 10:55 PM | Page modified December 17, 2010 at 10:09 AM

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Debaters find little agreement on Hwy. 99 tunnel plan

In a Thursday night debate at Seattle City Hall, Sen. Ed Murray, a proponent of the Highway 99 tunnel project, said discord over the project is fracturing the city's progressive coalition and making it difficult to represent the city's interests in Olympia. Seattle City Councilman Mike O'Brien asserted that tunnel spending at a time of education and social-service cuts shows a political system out of whack.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

State Sen. Ed Murray accused Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and other foes of the Highway 99 tunnel of eroding the city's influence in the Legislature, in a debate over the planned 1.7-mile tunnel Thursday night.

"You're making the ability for us to move Seattle's agenda in Olympia almost impossible," he said during the event in City Hall.

Just a week ago, the state Department of Transportation selected a winning bid team to drill a 58-foot-wide bore from Sodo to South Lake Union by the end of 2015. State lawmakers in April 2009 passed a pro-tunnel bill to supply $2.4 billion worth of gas taxes and federal bridge grants toward an overall $3.1 billion highway corridor, including surface interchanges. Another $400 million would come from yet-undetermined tolls, and $300 million from the Port of Seattle. The tunnel is to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

Thursday's debate was sponsored by PubliCola.net, a Seattle-based website devoted to political news and opinion.

Murray said the tunnel, as well as other highway projects, will help the state endure the recession.

But tunnel foes said Thursday night that the money would be better spent for more transit and widening Interstate 5 downtown.

McGinn held up Thursday's Seattle Times, with a front-page photo of Gov. Chris Gregoire's sour expression as she proposed budget cuts, to dramatize his argument that governments lack money to pay any cost overruns on the tunnel.

Councilman Mike O'Brien, a tunnel foe, said he doesn't want to be part of a political system that cuts school funding and removes health care, "but we're going to build the biggest deep-bored tunnel in the history of the world."

Strictly speaking, state gas-tax revenue — the main funding source for the tunnel — is constitutionally separate from state general funds.

Nine years of tunnel debate "have fractured the progressive coalition" in the city, Murray said.

"To say that every Seattle legislator who voted for the 14 ½ cent gas-tax increase, partly to put people to work, are not taking into consideration the children in our schools, people who need health care, is intellectually dishonest," he said.

McGinn replied, about the tunnel: "We're not unified because it's hard to unify behind a bad project."

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Cary Moon, of the People's Waterfront Coalition, which is also opposed to the tunnel, said that up to two-thirds of today's Alaskan Way Viaduct traffic would use streets rather than the new tunnel because of fewer exits and anticipated tolls of more than $3 at peak commute times.

In the state plan, much of that traffic would use a wider surface boulevard or use the new Sodo interchange.

Asked later how tunnel dissension harms progressive social issues, Murray couldn't cite a specific area except transit, where he said discord among Seattleites would ruin any chance that lawmakers statewide heed city requests for more funding sources.

On the question of whether tunnel supporters are choosing the tunnel over social issues, Dave Freiboth, of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council, said unions are supporting food banks, and what he hears from the poor is they want a jobs, and a tunnel would provide construction work and stimulate spending.

By prolonging public debate of the tunnel, Councilman O'Brien said, he hopes that City Council members will delay proposed January agreements with the state for tunnel-related utilities and street use, and that eventually the political tide will turn against the tunnel.

Councilman Tom Rasmussen, speaking for the tunnel, called McGinn a "switcheroo" assuming the audience was familiar with McGinn's late campaign promise last fall to carry out the will of the pro-tunnel City Council, though at the time, he also said he would ask hard questions.

After the debate, moderator Essex Porter, of KIRO (Channel 7), asked the audience if anyone changed their minds about the tunnel. No one raised a hand.

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

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