House panel sets back plans for Seattle viaduct tunnel

SEATTLE – A state House committee stunned Seattle leaders with lopsided approval for a measure that would scrap the tunnel option for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct unless money for the project is in place by April 1.

The 26-2 vote by the House Transportation Committee came Tuesday – the fifth anniversary of the magnitude-6.8 Nisqually Earthquake, which damaged the aging viaduct and increased safety concerns.

The amendment offered by Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, directs the state Department of Transportation to continue planning after April 1 only for alternatives “for which funding is appropriated, earmarked or on hand.”

Tunnel backers are organizing to defeat the measure as the Legislature winds down.

Mayor Greg Nickels and a City Council majority want a tunnel to replace the viaduct, a towering concrete structure that carries Highway 99 along the waterfront. They see it as a chance to reconnect downtown with the waterfront and create new opportunities for recreation and development.

Lawmakers last year set aside $2.2 billion for whatever option is picked for replacing the viaduct, which engineers say could collapse in a big quake.

Rebuilding is expected to cost $2 billion to $3.67 billion and take 11to12 years, according to state figures. The tunnel option would cost $3.7 billion to $4.5 billion and take seven to 10 years.

“Even if the city played the megalottery, it’s unlikely they’d win enough money for the tunnel option,” Dickerson said. And the expense could undercut the state’s ability to take on other important projects, she said.

The state can’t afford to keep planning for both, she said. So “unless something changes by April 1, we’d be going forward with only one option, and that is the rebuild.”

Nickels called the amendment “counterproductive and very unfortunate.”

“We had a cooperative working relationship, and this threatens to turn it into a more adversarial relationship, and I’m not sure it serves anyone’s interest,” he said.

“I think the city is in serious trouble. I think the fact that a committee voted it out by that lopsided majority is quite a stunning thing,” said Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who also favors the tunnel.

“The one positive thing to be said about all this is … this process is going to get us a decision,” state Transportation Secretary Doug McDonald said Wednesday. “We would rather have this happening than no action at all.”

The Transportation Department says it has enough money to rebuild the viaduct – about $2.45 billion. That includes $2 billion from the state gas-tax increase approved by voters in November, along with other state and federal money.

Scaling back the project – delaying replacement of part of the deteriorating seawall and the lowering of Aurora Avenue – reduces the tab for the tunnel option to $3 billion to $3.6 billion, and for the rebuild to $2 billion to $2.4 billion, viaduct project director Bob Paananen said Wednesday.

The city can’t make the April 1 deadline, deputy mayor Tim Ceis said, but it has commitments for just under $3.2 billion – including about $200 million it is negotiating to get from the Port of Seattle.

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