Politics & Government

State officials reject Seattle tunnel option

Seattle voters will receive their ballots next week asking them to choose a tunnel or another elevated highway to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. But Gov. Chris Gregoire and lawmakers say there's only one right answer: another viaduct.

The city of Seattle says lawmakers ignore voters "at their own peril."

"The election is happening," said Marianne Bichsel, spokeswoman for Mayor Greg Nickels. "This vote matters now more than ever. The people of Seattle have to tell Olympia, 'You're not going to decide our waterfront, we are.' "

The ballot for the March 13 advisory election will allow city voters to say whether they prefer the tunnel, a new elevated structure, both plans or neither option to replace the existing viaduct, which is old and damaged from the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

On Tuesday, Gregoire and lawmakers rejected Seattle's scaled-down proposal for a waterfront tunnel after state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald sent Gregoire a letter saying he "cannot recommend to you approval of this proposal as an acceptable viaduct replacement option." He said there are too many operational and safety concerns with the $3.4 billion tunnel design.

In a written statement, Gregoire said, "To move forward with that option would simply be irresponsible."

Gregoire's spokeswoman, Holly Armstrong, said that regardless of the outcome of Seattle's election, the tunnel option is dead.

Seattle City Council President Nick Licata, a supporter of rebuilding the viaduct, called the upcoming election "pointless" and said he had called King County Elections to see whether there was time to cancel it. He acknowledged he would need to get a majority of the council to support that move, something ­Bichsel said would not happen.

The governor's decision came after House Speaker Frank Chopp, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, and Democratic and Republican transportation leaders in the Legislature released statements also calling for replacing the viaduct with another elevated structure. That would cost about $2.8 billion, most already approved by the Legislature.

"It makes absolutely no sense to replace an unsafe Viaduct with an unsafe tunnel," said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Nickels, who had first wanted a six-lane tunnel, later pushed a four-lane "tunnel lite" version that would use safety shoulders as exit lanes during rush hour, but MacDonald said his department could not approve the use of shoulders as travel lanes. He said car crashes or stalled vehicles would block lanes and emergency vehicles would have longer response times.

His letter also expressed concerns about capacity for both cars and freight, and the impact on waterfront businesses.

Bichsel said the letter was "more of a political document than a technical report" and that there is a "clear bias to shove a twice-as-big and uglier elevated structure on our waterfront."

On the Web

Legislature: www.leg.wa.gov

Governor: www.governor.wa.gov

Anti-Viaduct Campaign: www.noelevated.org

Anti-Tunnel Campaign: notunnelalliance.blogspot.com