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Thursday, March 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gregoire: Let's get to work on viaduct

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA — City and state officials tried to put the best face on a tough situation Wednesday, announcing a $915 million plan to start work on parts of the Alaskan Way Viaduct while postponing to late 2008 a decision on how to replace it.

The agreement to begin work this summer came just a day after voters in Seattle rejected both a tunnel and a new elevated highway along the waterfront.

"We're going to move forward not by highlighting the differences of yesterday, but by finding common ground today," Gov. Christine Gregoire said at a news conference in Olympia.

She was surrounded by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, King County Executive Ron Sims and other state and local officials who all promised to work together, both on the immediate construction projects and on finding a long-term solution.

The agreement includes increasing inspections and shoring up parts of the weakened viaduct, which engineers have said could collapse in a major earthquake.

It also calls for building a new interchange near Qwest and Safeco fields, relocating certain utilities and upgrading safety features in the Battery Street Tunnel.

Much of the work would be on the north and south ends of the viaduct. The work is needed no matter what replacement option is selected and would keep the project on track, Gregoire said.

She said the state would start dismantling the structure by 2012.

"I'm determined to take it down before it falls down," Gregoire said. "I will not go sleepless at night worried that we're going to have an earthquake and lives will be lost."

Talks on what to do about the center one mile of the viaduct won't start until after the legislative session ends April 22. A decision will be made by late 2008, before lawmakers begin writing the next two-year state budget, Gregoire said.

She offered a long list of people and agencies who will participate: legislators, city officials, transportation agencies, and Port of Seattle and transit representatives. It was evident Wednesday that the state and city officials had their talking points in order. They seemed to work the words "collaborative process" into almost every sentence.

How that collaboration would work, after weeks of bitter debate over what's best for the waterfront and drivers, is unclear.

"On a staff level, we'll have to get together and see how we'll do it," Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said. "Clearly we're going to have to look at how we work together."

Ceis said he has told his staff, " 'Don't go into this with a predetermined idea about what the solution is because that will polarize the discussion. You have to go into this open-minded.' "

Gregoire, Nickels and Sims would not comment Wednesday on what option they would support now.

Gregoire has said an elevated highway is the only logical choice. Nickels has pushed a tunnel as a way to reclaim the waterfront. Sims has suggested tearing down the viaduct and improving surface streets and increasing mass transit to handle the traffic.

The state will provide at most $2.8 billion — the estimated cost of another elevated highway — no matter what the ultimate replacement option is, Gregoire said.

"I'm not going to talk about what's on and what's off because I don't have an idea today," she said.

Nickels agreed. "I would look at it as a blank slate," he said.

However, the mayor also said the voters rejected both a tunnel and an elevated highway Tuesday and he would abide by that decision.

That would seem to leave surface streets and enhanced transit as the only alternative from the city's point of view. But Ceis said that's not true: "We're not locking in on the so-called surface option. That will start polarizing the debate again if people do that."

He wouldn't comment on what another option might be.

Seattle City Council President Nick Licata cautioned against assuming that Tuesday's vote signaled support for any particular solution, including the so-called surface option.

"Certain people hate to hear the truth, but I don't think there is a majority in Seattle that supports any option," Licata said.

Matt Barreto, assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, said it's logical for political leaders to put off a decision until after the 2008 election.

"From her (Gregoire's) perspective I think it makes sense to try to table this discussion for two years and to try to find some other victories or accomplishments in Seattle and try to heal those wounds," he said.

The viaduct debate has been dominated by finger-pointing, public-records hunts for damaging documents, dueling news conferences and a barrage of letters and e-mails accusing each other of blocking progress.

"Obviously everybody realized that this has to stop, that the electioneering is over," Ceis said.

One of the more notable things about the governor's news conference Wednesday was how civil everyone was. City and state officials said Sims played a big role in bringing the factions together by acting as a conduit between the city and the state.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, noted that Sims had not been involved in the earlier conflicts over the tunnel vs. another viaduct.

"He was the Switzerland," she said.

State, city and county staff began talking to each other, working out a compromise that culminated in a phone call between Nickels and Gregoire this past Friday.

"Once the mayor and governor spoke and gave us the authorization to get it done, it came together quickly," Ceis said.

The agreement announced Wednesday was hammered out over the past weekend and early this week.

Said Gregoire: "We're on one page today, moving forward."

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

Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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