Seattle voters say yes to building deep-bore tunnel

Seattle voters say yes to building deep-bore tunnel
SEATTLE -- In the latest round of Seattle's decade-long debate over how to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct, voters appear to be giving a big "yes" to the deep-bore tunnel.

In early returns Tuesday night, Referendum 1 was passing with 60-percent approval.

Voters were not directly approving or rejecting the tunnel, but essentially gave the city council the authority to green-light the proposed $2 billion Highway 99 tunnel.

A rejection of the referendum, encouraged by environmentalists concerned about pollution, would complicate the building process.

Six members of the Seattle City Council were seen celebrating voters' support of the referendum at a gathering hosted by pro-tunnel group Let's Move Forward on Tuesday night.

"I had no idea it would be a landslide like this," said council member Tim Burgess. "A couple of my colleagues have been shedding a few tears over here. I was just screaming."

Let's Move Forward, a grassroots group, spent $470,000 on TV ads and mailings, and made 3,000 phone calls on the eve of Election Day alone.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who could not be reached for hours, issued a statement via Twitter around 10:30 p.m.

"I worked to give the public a direct vote on the tunnel. The public said move ahead with the tunnel, and that's what we're going to do," the mayor said.

The city 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 along the downtown waterfront. 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 was damaged in the region's 2001 earthquake, and engineers have long been concerned it could collapse in the next one.

The state has been determined to press ahead with the 1.7-mile tunnel. The Transportation Department expects an all-clear from the federal government within a few days, and the groundbreaking is set for next month. Without further delays from a lawsuit or unforeseen problems, the tunnel is scheduled to open in late 2015.

"Seattle voters sent a message loud and clear with this vote - enough is enough," said Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday night. "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."

"It has been a long time. Cost us a lot of money," said Burgess. "Happy with the results, but you know, it was not that significant. It was a process election, so kind of a waste of time, frankly."

Officials have 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 option favored by the bicycling mayor.

In 2007, voters strongly rejected two ballot measures, one that would have rebuilt the viaduct and one that would have replaced it with a tunnel.

It's not entirely clear why voters had a change of heart Tuesday, but many speculated that they're just tired of talking about it.

At an Election Day gathering on Capitol Hill, a group of citizens and city leaders who oppose the tunnel option watched as the votes quickly stacked up against them.

"I honestly believe that this will be looked at as a missed opportunity," said Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien. "I don't think that my kids and their grandkids are going to look back and say, 'Boy, I'm really glad we built that freeway."'

O'Brien still believes the tunnel is a deeply flawed project with looming questions about tolling, cost overruns and epic scale of such a big dig.

"There are some unresolved financial issues that I think Olympia is going to have to wrestle with," he said. "If they don't toll it and have to raise $400 million, do they go back to the voters to get more gas tax money? I don't know how that all gets resolved."

Some insist the politics of trying to stop the tunnel has run its course. But they say enormity of such a big tube buried so deep in such a precarious spot could doom itself once construction gets under way.

And some opponents don't believe the fight is over yet.

"There's still a chance it could fall apart. It could bump into a boulder, and cost hundreds of millions of more dollars to move forward," said opponent Cary Moon.

More than half of the votes must still be counted.