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Originally published August 16, 2011 at 10:16 PM | Page modified August 17, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Corrected version

Voters backing Seattle tunnel; fight may finally be over

After more than a decade of wrangling on how to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle voters on Tuesday said the city should stop dithering and move ahead with a controversial $2 billion Highway 99 tunnel.

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After more than a decade of wrangling on how to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle voters on Tuesday said the city should stop dithering and move ahead with a controversial $2 billion Highway 99 tunnel.

In a rebuke to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and other tunnel opponents, nearly 60 percent of the votes counted Tuesday were in support of the project.

At the pro-tunnel party at Pier 57 on the Seattle waterfront, supporters cheered and hugged. "I think people really wanted to move on. They wanted to be done with this debate," said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen.

McGinn kept a low profile during the run-up to the vote and remained out of public view Tuesday night. In a brief statement, he accepted the results: "I worked to give the public a direct vote ... The public said move ahead with the tunnel, and that's what we're going to do."

At a Capitol Hill bar packed with tunnel opponents, the previously boisterous crowd fell silent as the lopsided outcome was announced.

Councilmember Mike O'Brien, a tunnel foe, called it a "decisive" result, and said "the people of Seattle are ready to move forward." He called on tunnel opponents to take the loss graciously and work to make the tunnel the best possible project for the city.

But not all opponents were satisfied. Anti-tunnel activist Elizabeth Campbell issued a statement calling the Referendum 1 vote "far from a decisive victory" and vowed to continue her efforts.

The $2 billion tunnel is the most controversial part of the $3.1 billion state project to replace Seattle's creaky double-decker waterfront highway that was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

The vote was a relief for supporters of the project, including Gov. Chris Gregoire and eight of the nine members of the City Council. Supporters, who also included the city's political, labor and business leaders, said the tunnel would maintain freight mobility, preserve a vital north-south corridor and open the waterfront to a public parkway.

As the sun set over the Olympics, pro-tunnel Councilmember Richard Conlin said the scene from Pier 57 made him think of what the entire waterfront would look like if the viaduct were removed.

In a statement Tuesday night, Gregoire said the vote sent a clear message that "enough is enough."

Even before Tuesday's outcome, the state was determined to press ahead with the project. Contracts have been awarded and groundbreaking is scheduled for early next month. The tunnel is supposed to be completed by December 2015.

The referendum was seen as a measure of public support for the tunnel, even if the actual ballot language was on a narrow question of whether the City Council should approve technical agreements with the state on the project.

Barring a major turnaround in later vote counts, Tuesday's result clears one of the last political hurdles for the long-debated viaduct replacement.

Tunnel supporters portrayed McGinn as an obstructionist whose referendum would only prolong the process of replacing the viaduct. The Let's Move Forward campaign also reminded voters that on the eve of the 2009 mayoral election, McGinn promised to not withhold the city's cooperation on the project.

The pro-tunnel forces vastly outspent the opposition, raising $447,521, much of it from major business interests.

Protect Seattle Now, the anti-tunnel campaign, raised $95,374. But more than half its donations came before April, when it was gathering signatures to get the measure on the ballot. The Sierra Club was the biggest donor with $13,120.

Two McGinn staff members took leaves of absence to work on the signature-gathering effort. McGinn and O'Brien hosted fundraisers; McGinn's campaign consultant Bill Broadhead donated $5,000 and McGinn's wife donated $500.

Protect Seattle Now, with support from the Sierra Club, Real Change newspaper, and a citizens group that favors a viaduct rebuild, submitted more than 29,000 signatures to the city March 29 to qualify the referendum for the ballot. That day, City Attorney Pete Holmes filed a lawsuit challenging the measure's legality.

King County Superior Court Judge Laura Gene Middaugh ruled in May that one clause of the council ordinance adopting the tunnel agreements could go to voters as a referendum. That clause directs the council to give notice to the state to proceed once the final environmental reviews are completed and the project is approved by the federal government.

The narrow, procedural ruling left tunnel backers arguing that the vote would have no legal effect on the project, while McGinn and anti-tunnel activists said it would be a referendum on whether the city supported the project. Faced with poor poll numbers on their favored surface-transit option, tunnel opponents were left criticizing the tunnel but offering no funded alternative.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305

or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Staff reporter J.B. Wogan contributed to this report.

Information in this article, originally published Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011, was corrected Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the title of the tunnel issue on the ballot. It is Referendum 1.

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