Sunday, February 25, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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James Vesely / Times editorial page editor

Tunnel politics: green streets, Hail Mary lanes

At Thursday night's Town Hall forum on Seattle's upcoming transportation vote, former Mayor Charles Royer voiced the most obvious, but unspoken, rule of the game of chicken being played between the state and the city.

The debate "could end political careers," he said, and I think so, too. Royer pointed out that Gov. Christine Gregoire "needs Seattle" for her political career and forcing the city to take what most of its elected officials do not want in the shape of a rebuilt viaduct is not a way to keep people happy. Which gives us an excuse to assess the political landscape:

Gov. Gregoire: Despite the confidence in her eye and step, the governor, as the saying goes, came to a fork in the road and took it. Eliminating the tunnel option before holding a vote that she demanded of the city seemed calculated to make the city look dumb. The bad blood now between the Washington State Department of Transportation and city officials doesn't help, either. Gregoire emerges politically vulnerable to charges of mishandling the state's biggest headache. In no case would her staff want to see anything about the city's transportation finances or plans on a 2008 ballot, but a drawn-out study of a green-friendly surface-street plan could easily put this another year out.

House Speaker Frank Chopp and senior Seattle House member Helen Sommers remain invulnerable to their enemies. They've been fighting the mayor's tunnel option from the start. Chopp's demand for a viaduct replacement may fall to a street-only plan but he's been out to kill the tunnel, and it looks like he has.

Mayor Greg Nickels seemed so confident in the first tunnel option that each backward step he has taken since then has left him vulnerable to various critics. He said the six-lane tunnel could be paid for and built. The hybrid tunnel of four lanes plus the Hail Mary shoulder lanes arrived with the desperate curse of a compromise. If a viaduct rebuild goes forward, it would be an enormous blow to ego, legacy and, possibly, Nickels' future.

Seattle City Council members are by far the most vulnerable, almost bare on the sand. Already some are talking about ditching the tunnel and seeking the soft landing of a street-only plan, although one doesn't exist. Two council members, Jan Drago and Richard Conlin, pointed out that the state's demands that any solution meet the capacity requirements of number of vehicle trips per day is only a statutory requirement. Change the statute and, voilà, lower traffic counts suddenly meet the state's standard.

Seattle voters are not forgiving of mistakes on the council, and many also want true believers in Seattle's anti-car ethic. When viaduct proponent Phil Talmadge, a former justice on the state Supreme Court, warned the Thursday-night audience that government could eventually dictate hours of day for driving, alternate driving days and other mandates of the automobile, most of the audience broke into applause. The most passionate, emotional voice for the tunnel is Peter Steinbrueck's; the calmest and most logical against a tunnel is Nick Licata's. Go figure.

Washington State Department of Transportation. The biggest loser so far. While professionals of the department continue to speak truth to power, WSDOT looks politically spooked, skewered and manipulated. When people are looking for solutions and practical ideas, the state's premier engineering agency is on the defense.

Winners: Anti-incumbents; legislators who see Seattle as losing some of its power; Dino Rossi; eager challengers to City Council members; King County Executive Ron Sims, who is working on a surface and tolling plan; and maybe the Port of Seattle by staying out of this mess.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is:

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