Vote the latest stop for viaduct

SEATTLE – When the next big earthquake hits this fault-carved city, a grimy elevated highway slicing across its waterfront could come tumbling down on thousands of commuters.

This disastrous scenario has made it easy for politicians to agree on one thing: The Alaskan Way Viaduct must be removed. Replacing it, however, has leaders stuck in a multibillion-dollar game of chicken.

The mayor and most of the City Council want to replace the highway with a tunnel, saying Seattle has a chance to erase a mistake that divides downtown from Elliott Bay.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and key state lawmakers say they can’t afford such a plan. Instead, they’re pushing to replace the old viaduct with a bigger, modern version.

On Tuesday, city voters will get their chance to take sides in a uniquely Seattle election that’s not certain to resolve anything.

Thanks to a weirdly constructed ballot, Seattleites will be able to pick either a new elevated road, or a replacement tunnel.

They also could choose both. Or they could choose neither.

Bryan Jones, a University of Washington political scientist who drives the viaduct to work every day, is among those getting fed up with political gridlock in a city where discussion can outweigh action.

“Right now, I’m thinking, just wait’ll it falls down – even if it kills me in the process,” Jones said with a laugh.

Officials have known for years that the viaduct has serious safety problems. The 50-year-old double-decker highway was seriously damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, and repairs since then haven’t been enough to guarantee it will stay standing.

It’s the cost of a replacement that has things stuck. The Legislature will cover the cost of a rebuild – about $2.8 billion – but no more. The tunnel’s price tag is at least $3.4 billion.

Gov. Gregoire, a Democrat, says the tunnel also doesn’t meet her safety criteria. She and the Democratic statehouse leadership have virtually declared it a dead issue at the Capitol.

“The only viable option left that’s been looked at and studied is the rebuild,” said Holly Armstrong, the governor’s spokeswoman.

Mayor Greg Nickels and his allies won’t accept that, saying Seattle could turn its waterfront into a broad park and business district by burying part of the highway underground.

“I just can’t imagine, with other cities around the country taking these ’50s-era freeways down … how Seattle could look at it with a straight face and say, ‘We’re putting ours back up,’” Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said.

The standoff is a politically touchy one for Gregoire, who won her first term by just 129 votes after two recounts. Her next campaign looms in 2008, and she could be hurt by forcing an unwanted rebuild on the Democratic base in Seattle.

“I think there’s a real danger here, because what’s happened is that almost no solution is going to satisfy anybody,” said Jones, the political science professor.

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