Governor Says Seattle Tunnel Proposal Still on Table

Sat March 03, 2007 - West Edition

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) Gov. Chris Gregoire said Seattle’s decision to present a scaled-down tunnel proposal to voters deciding how to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct is still an option, but that too many questions remain about the costs and safety of the plan.

“I refuse … to end up with a Big Dig, to end up with a project that starts out at $2 billion and ends up at $14 billion,” Gregoire said, referring to Boston’s $14.6 billion project that buried a highway network beneath the city and suffered cost overruns, delays and faulty construction.

Seattle’s elevated bayshore highway is a major north-south corridor through the Northwest’s largest city, carrying 110,000 vehicles a day. The 6.8 magnitude Nisqually earthquake damaged the viaduct in 2001, and it’s widely viewed as vulnerable to collapse if another strong earthquake were to rattle it.

While there is broad agreement between the city and state on the need to tear down the 53-year-old roadway, the impasse has been over how to replace it.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels offered a four-lane tunnel as an alternative to the $4.6 billion, six-lane tunnel he had long wanted. The four-lane option would cut $1.2 billion from the price tag.

But Gregoire and top lawmakers rejected the new proposal and gave the city a choice between two alternatives: either build a new viaduct, or lose the state money for it to an unrelated mega-project — replacing the Evergreen Point floating bridge across Lake Washington.

The ultimatum came after the city’s initial decision to hold an election April 24 to ask voters whether to replace the viaduct with a new elevated structure or the six-lane tunnel on the downtown waterfront.

Gregoire had told Seattle leaders that the vote had to happen before the end of legislative session on April 22. The City Council responded with a decision to hold the election on March 13, with the smaller tunnel option as one of the choices.

Wording of the ballot measure has not been finalized, but would include details that the four-lane tunnel — the current choice of Nickels — would cost $3.41 billion. The measure asking voters if they support a new elevated structure would list its cost at $2.8 billion, with most of the money already secured.

“This is not the vote I asked for,” Gregoire said, arguing that the mayor’s new proposal has not been properly analyzed by transportation officials.

“Do we really know how much it costs? Do we really know whether it’s going to work? Do we really know that the safety measures that are important are going to be there?” Gregoire asked.

On Jan. 22, Nickels asked the state to allow the Expert Review Panel and the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project team to complete a review of the smaller tunnel proposal before the election.

In a letter to Gregoire, Nickels noted that in September, the panel and the state Department of Transportation reviewed the costs for the original tunnel and elevated structure proposals in less than 19 days.

“A similar review of the surface/tunnel hybrid proposal can be completed in the same amount of time well before the March 13 election,” he wrote.

Gregoire Spokeswoman Holly Armstrong said the governor had no comment yet on Nickels’ request because she had just received the letter.

At her morning news conference, Gregoire noted that some key legislators — including powerful House Speaker Frank Chopp of Seattle — refuse to back a tunnel. And she said that in turn, the city could withhold permits or file lawsuits to stop a replacement viaduct.

If the two sides can’t come to some type of resolution, it will only lead to expensive, and potentially dangerous, delays, she said.

“I have one major priority and that is, take down the viaduct before it falls down and we have loss of human life,” she said. “That tragedy can, and must, be avoided.”

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chairwoman of the House Transportation committee, said she didn’t think the March vote would help lawmakers with their decision, because so much more information is needed on the new tunnel, if that is what voters ultimately pass.

“What if they both go up? What if they both go down?” she asked. “It’s not a helpful thing for us to have that vote. It’s just a poll, a snapshot in time. We need to know what we need to do and what the implications are.”

But Nickels’ Spokeswoman, Marianne Bichsel, said the smaller tunnel was analyzed by transportation officials two years ago, when it was rejected because of concern over problems with exits and entrances, something Bichsel said has since been addressed.

“There’s been a level of analysis already completed,” she said. “We’re not starting at zero.”

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