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Seattle inches toward decision on $3.1-billion tunnel project

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One of the scariest days in recent Seattle memory occurred just over a decade ago, when the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake crumbled old masonry walls and set swaying the two-level viaduct that carries automobile traffic along the downtown waterfront.

The viaduct was damaged, but didn’t collapse. That was only by fortuitous accident, engineers said later. Had that 2001 earthquake been a bit stronger or lasted, say, 20 seconds longer, the elevated roadway would have pancaked like a deadly house of cards.

Thus began the process of endless studies, debate, attempted consensus -- and eventually lawsuits and recall attempts -- that often characterizes Seattle politics. Everyone is polite (the worst name-calling here happens when one side accuses the other of not being ‘real’ environmentalists); everyone has an opinion; and nothing ever gets decided.

The issue: Should the viaduct be dismantled and replaced with a $3.1 billion deep-bore tunnel project that will carry traffic under and through downtown -- that’s what the state Department of Transportation and most of the City Council want to do -- or should the city pursue a much cheaper network of improvements to surface streets and Interstate 5 that will carry traffic around downtown?

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That’s where things sit Tuesday, the deadline for mailing in ballots on a referendum that is intended to be a final thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the conundrum known simply as the Tunnel.

If the referendum passes, the City Council will be free to sign the last agreements with the state to proceed with groundbreaking for the tunnel, which makes up $1.9 billion of the estimated $3.1 billion cost of the transportation improvement project, in the fall. If it fails, the city and state will likely try to go ahead with the tunnel anyway. How long can you talk about an issue, after all? But opponents believe a resounding public ‘no’ will, at the very least, send a strong cautionary message to City Hall.

(Warning: The language of the referendum is actually so technical and confusing that both sides could wind up declaring victory when it’s over.)

The tunnel would be the largest deep-bore tunnel ever constructed, stacking cars vertically inside a 57.4-foot-diameter underground pipe running 1.7 miles through the heart of the city.

Proponents argue that it would give the city a chance to dump the ugly viaduct and build a ‘world-class’ waterfront that for the first time takes advantage of the breathtaking views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains.

Opponents say that, with little access to downtown from the tunnel, it would make travel harder, not easier, and would further wed people to their automobiles. They also warn that the $400 million in tolls the state is hoping will help pay for the project will never materialize -- drivers will churn onto surface streets anyway to avoid them -- and Seattle taxpayers will be left to cover the shortfall.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has spent much of his two years in office dissing the tunnel idea. Rejection of the referendum would be a big political win for him, though the City Council has backed the project strongly enough that it’s been able to overcome his veto in the past.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire also backs the tunnel, warning recently that a ‘no’ vote could mean the loss of $2.8 billion in state funding. So does the Seattle Times. ‘Vote yes to move beyond umpteen years of civic paralysis,’ editorial columnist Joni Balter wrote, ‘and do your part to end this overwrought, tangled debate.’

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--Kim Murphy in Seattle


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