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Tuesday, January 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gregoire says viaduct vote still matters

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA — Gov. Christine Gregoire, who seemingly dismissed the idea of replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel last week, now says she wants to hear what Seattle voters have to say on March 13.

"I will never, ever say that a vote of the people is a waste," the governor said in a news conference Monday, later adding, "That's just fundamentally wrong. I, as an elected official, do not believe that."

Yet the governor wouldn't say what she would do if voters opt for a four-lane tunnel that Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and a majority of the Seattle City Council say would be much cheaper than the six-lane version the state has proposed.

"I can't answer," she said, noting there are too many unknowns.

Gregoire said there are serious, unanswered questions about the narrower tunnel, such as how much would it cost, how much traffic it would carry and "who is going to pay for the shutdown of the waterfront to those businesses that will probably be out of business for 27 months?"

"I refuse to end up with a Big Dig, to end with a project that starts out at $2 billion and ends up at $14 billion," she said, referring to Boston's $14.6 billion tunnel project plagued by massive cost overruns and faulty construction.

Gregoire said it is the responsibility of the city, the Legislature and herself to address as many of those questions as possible before the Seattle vote.

Marianne Bichsel, a spokeswoman for Nickels, said "we're pleased that the governor appears to be willing to listen to what the voters of Seattle say about this."

Nickels sent a letter to Gregoire on Monday asking her to authorize the state Department of Transportation and an expert review panel to study the new tunnel proposal.

The governor's office said Gregoire had not made a decision about the request.

Seattle City Council president Nick Licata said the governor's statement "left not only the door open for the tunnel, but a very wide door."

However, Licata, a tunnel opponent, said Gregoire "made the statement before she saw the ballot title, which as I feared came back without any cost figures."

The governor and legislative leaders have said the proposal going to voters in March should contain cost estimates for both replacing the viaduct with a tunnel and building a new elevated highway.

That isn't going to happen.

"We're left with a simple design choice; that really puts the debate in a situation ... where we will see a pro-tunnel vote," Licata said.

City attorney Tom Carr said he dropped the cost estimates from the ballot title because, with a 75-word limit, there wasn't room to explain where the numbers came from. He added that cost estimates will be part of the election campaign.

Gregoire's comments Monday represent the latest twist in an ongoing squabble over replacement of the aging viaduct, which carries Highway 99 along the downtown waterfront.

State House leaders want to build another overhead highway, while city officials want a tunnel that would open the downtown waterfront to redevelopment.

Last month, Gregoire issued her findings on the viaduct options, saying the state could afford a $2.8 billion elevated highway but that the finance plan for a $4.6 billion, six-lane tunnel didn't pencil out.

Acknowledging the political stalemate, she called on city leaders to put the options on the ballot before the legislative session ends April 22 — or else the state would move ahead with the elevated structure.

Instead, Nickels came back with a new, smaller tunnel proposal that he said would cost $3.4 billion — $1.2 billion less than the larger one.

He met with the governor and Democratic legislative leaders to pitch the idea. They didn't like it and said the state would either build an elevated highway or spend the billions set aside for the project on a new Highway 520 bridge.

The Seattle City Council decided to put the new tunnel on the ballot anyway, along with a measure asking voters if they want to replace the viaduct with an elevated highway.

Although Gregoire's comments left the tunnel option open for now, the project still appears to be at a political standstill.

Democratic leaders in the state House on Monday said nothing has changed for them. They plan to move ahead with an elevated highway, no matter what the outcome of the advisory vote in Seattle, said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.

Nickels and a majority of City Council still seem intent on building the tunnel.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she supports the governor's position.

"We have two very passionate views on what should be done here," Gregoire said. "You have a situation where the Legislature could choose not to appropriate the funds. The city could say we're not going to give you any permits so you're not going to build an elevated structure.

"It is time for us to come together with a common vision. I hope the city of Seattle is able to do that, and I hope they are able to bring the legislative leadership along with whatever it is they want by way of an outcome. The impasse is real, and it's difficult."

Staff reporters Susan Gilmore and Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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