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After the Alaskan vote

Alaskan Way
On the Alaskan Way Viaduct (headed south)/Linda Watkins

About a month ago, we suggested that the political street brawl over the Alaskan Way viaduct in Seattle had the potential to do some serious damage to the governing Democrats in Seattle and Washington state. Re-evaluating a month later, we’d suggest now that potential is not entirely gone, but the odds of many of the players getting out with their political hides more or less intact has improved.

The highest risk now may be applied to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, but even there, must will depend on how he handles developments over this next month.

To step back a moment: One of the biggest public service needs in the Puget Sound area in recent years has been transportation; transport problems were even cited as one of the lead factors in the Boeing corporate move to the Chicago. In Seattle, one of the biggest problems has been one specific road, the elevated, limited-access portion of US 99 which runs by the downtown right at the Elliot Bay waterfront, called the Alaskan Way viaduct. Rumblings in the earth have shaken and damaged it, and some year it will – if unattended to – crumble and collapse. The question is what to do about that.

Three main options have been put forward: Rebuilt it, more sturdily; go underground, replacing it with a tunnel; or converting it to a surface road. The tunnel has aesthetic and other appeal, but is much the most expensive option. The surface option is thought to be much the least expensive, but may tangle traffic around downtown much worse than it is now. The surface idea has a few advocates, so far apparently not many though in recent days there’s been a boomlet in its favor. Whatever happens, money from various sources will be needed, both local and state. As it happens, this general issue is one of those voters agreed in 2005 to fund with increased gas taxes.

The problem has been: Which way should the traffic go: Above ground, below ground, or on the ground? The various advocates, and all the lead players here are Democrats, have scattered all over the map and have not shown a lot of inclination to work together.

But the issue seems to be heading toward a resolution anyway.

The Seattle City Council has placed the issue on the ballot, with an election day of March 13; mail-in ballots are already headed out. Up or down votes on the viaduct rebuild and the tunnel (recently scaled back by the city, now referred to as a “hybrid”) will be possible. (No action and street level are not on the table.) The voters could in theory support both options, or neither, or one or the other.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels may have hoped that ballot would show support for the tunnel idea, which he has been rigorously – you might almost say single-mindedly – pushing for some months. The city council seems to be mostly with him, with some exceptions.

Alaskan Way north of downtownHowever, an hour south in Olympia, reaction has been different. Governor Chris Gregoire, who as the holder of a veto stamp has a good deal to say about this, has been everywhere on the issue. Or, was: She now seems to have settled down to the proposition that the tunnel idea is a non-starter, which seems an endorsement for the rebuild – or nothing. (That’s a general read of her stance, and certain Nickel’s view of it, and Gregoire did explicitly say last week, “Today we need to move forward with the one option that meets safety standards and is fiscally responsible: the elevated structure.”)

Her stance on this may have been influenced by that of House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, whose district – just a couple of mile north of the north end of the viaduct – will be affected directly by whatever happens. He has planted himself firmly against the tunnel, and said any plan to build a tunnel is dead. Period. Given the clout he and his Democratic caucus have in the House, he probably can make that stick. And Chopp has been at least as visible as Gregoire on the issue in the last month; he may have helped force the issue to a resolution.

How they might react if the voters support a tunnel isn’t clear. (Gregoire, who only last week denied the state government is aligned against the tunnel, also said, “How does one really say that this is a credible ballot?”) But polling now seems to show voters will almost certainly reject the tunnel and probably will approve a rebuild. If they do, the issue may well be resolved; Nickels has said he would accept the voters’ decision.

If that happens – meaning, if a month from now the state, city and voter elements all are on the same page – then the issue may be resolved.

If it is, the chaos that seemed so rampant a month ago may well be resolved. If it is, the political risk may go away. Voters may forget about the pre-development skirmishes, if by election day they see development going forward.

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