August 18, 2011 in Nation/World

Seattle voters OK waterfront tunnel

Gene Johnson Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

The Alaskan Way Viaduct is shown in this photo taken in 2005. Work is expected to begin soon on a tunnel to replace the viaduct.
(Full-size photo)

SEATTLE – After a decade of dithering, Seattle voters have OK’d replacing an aging and seismically vulnerable elevated highway along the waterfront with a tunnel, a project expected to open the city’s downtown to even more spectacular views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains.

Early returns from Tuesday’s primary showed 60 percent of voters giving the $2 billion project the go-ahead in an advisory vote that turned into a rebuke of Mayor Mike McGinn.

McGinn, elected nearly two years ago largely for his opposition to the plan, has remained the tunnel’s most high-profile opponent. He said he’s concerned that Seattle could be stuck paying for any cost overruns.

“I worked to give the public a direct vote on the tunnel,” McGinn said. “The public said move ahead with the tunnel, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Seattle has spent 10 years – and its residents have now voted three times – in deciding how to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated, double-deck highway built more than half a century ago. It carries about 100,000 vehicles a day on State Route 99 past ferry terminals, the Seattle Aquarium and the Pike Place Market, as well as commercial traffic to and from the Port of Seattle.

The highway, considered an eyesore on the waterfront, was damaged in the region’s 2001 earthquake, and engineers have long been concerned it could collapse in the next one.

The 1.7-mile, deep-bore tunnel is the most contentious part of the state’s $3.1 billion plan to replace the viaduct. It has raised the specter of Boston’s Big Dig, which created a network of highway tunnels but was ridiculed for costing billions of dollars more than anticipated and was troubled by multiple water leaks and a fatal ceiling collapse.

Transportation officials swear Seattle’s tunnel will be different: It’s vastly shorter and simpler, without any downtown exits to complicate things, and it will use newer tunneling technology that’s already proven successful in digging China’s Shanghai Yangtze River Tunnel, Germany’s Fourth Elbe River Tunnel, and Spain’s Madrid M30.

The state has been determined to press ahead with the tunnel regardless of Seattle’s opinion. The Transportation Department expects an all-clear from the federal government within a few days, and work is set to begin over the next few months, though the actual boring wouldn’t begin for about a year and a half.

Without any lawsuits or unforeseen problems, the tunnel is scheduled to open in late 2015. A new promenade will run along the waterfront.

“Seattle voters sent a message loud and clear with this vote – enough is enough,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire, a tunnel proponent. “After 10 years of debate, hundreds of public meetings and technical studies, and thousands of public comments, it is time to move forward without delay.”

Officials had argued over whether to rebuild the viaduct, replace it with a tunnel, or just tear it down and shift the traffic onto city streets with improved public transit. The latter option was favored by the bicycling mayor and others who saw a chance to make the city less car-centric and more pedestrian-friendly.

In 2007, voters strongly rejected two ballot measures, one that would have rebuilt the viaduct and one that would have replaced it with a “cut-and-cover” tunnel. State transportation officials say the deep-bore tunnel won’t include the traffic disruption of the earlier proposal, which would have required closing the viaduct for years during construction.

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