Friday, January 15, 2010

"McGinn's move raises more questions about viaduct tunnel"

Chris Grygiel (
Will the tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct be built?

Last year the Legislature OK'd the $4.2 billion project, including $2.8 billion in state funding. Major construction is slated to begin next year. But both the House Speaker and Seattle's new mayor won't say whether the tunnel is a go.

On Wednesday Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, declined to answer a direct question about whether the project lawmakers signed off on would become reality.

On Thursday at a news conference concerning the viaduct seawall I asked Mayor Mike McGinn: "Do you think the tunnel will be built?"

He said: "This is about the seawall today, issues around the viaduct I'll be happy to address at another time."

The City Council says the tunnel will be built, the governor says the tunnel will be built and the state Department of Transportation says the tunnel will be built. But the reluctance by Chopp and McGinn to answer in the affirmative has interested parties worried. What, exactly, are they up to?

McGinn's feelings about the tunnel are well known. He hates it, preferring a surface option he says would be cheaper and move the city away from its car-centricity.

But just before November's mayoral election McGinn said he wouldn't stand in the way of the tunnel being built, a shift many credit with propelling him to victory. Since then, however, the new mayor has said he doesn't want to fully commit to the project until a clause in the legislation requiring Seattle to pay for cost overruns is removed. Chopp, who insisted the stick-it-to-Seattle clause be included in last year's legislation, and other leading lawmakers say that's not happening.

Critics of the tunnel - and there are many - point out that there are still concerns about how to get the $4.2 billion needed. The state's kicking in the $2.8 billion, with federal funds and $930 million from the city expected to make up a good chunk of the rest.

On Thursday McGinn announced plans for a $241 million property tax levy to help pay for replacing the viaduct seawall - a key component of any viaduct replacement and part of the $930 million needed to pay for the tunnel project. But far from assuaging those concerned about McGinn's plans for the tunnel, the announcement only created more questions.

Publicola reported City Councilmembers were surprised by the seawall plan. They'd need to sign off on it by March to present it to voters by May, as McGinn wants. Also, the ballot measure would require a 60-percent supermajority to pass - hardly a slam dunk for a tax hike during a down economy, even with Seattle's famously levy-loving populace. And just as the viaduct replacement issue is charged by intense debates about the future of the city - so is the seawall project. There are competing constituencies - from the Port to environmentalists to urban planners - who will want more than two months to review it.

There was significant speculation Thursday that the levy proposal was actually part of an elaborate scheme by McGinn and Chopp to stop the tunnel. McGinn spoke forcefully about safety concerns associated with the seawall and the need to replace it sooner rather than later, something his proposal would do. He also correctly noted the seawall is something that has to be fixed, regardless of the viaduct debate.

But until McGinn and Chopp flat out answer whether right now, a year before work on perhaps the biggest construction project in city history is scheduled to begin, they support the tunnel, people will continue read what they want into their actions.And the drama will only fuel the anti-Seattle sentiment in Olympia. Ten state senators have introduced a bill that would basically preclude Jet City from having any significant say in big state transportation projects being built in town.
Howie P.S.: If you need more tunnel talk, check out the comments.

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