Referendum 1 itself poses a narrow, procedural question: how the City Council provides notice to the state to begin tunnel construction.

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If the language in the Seattle Voter’s Guide is any indication, city residents might be excused for thinking the Aug. 16 ballot on the viaduct replacement tunnel hinges on which politicians are most unpopular:

Mayor Mike McGinn, who has made defeating the $2 billion tunnel a priority. Or the eight City Council members who have voted consistently to go forward with the Highway 99 viaduct replacement project.

The anti-tunnel statement in the guide urges Seattleites to “stand up to the politicians” who in 2009 “cut a risky and expensive backroom deal” to pursue the tunnel project.

The pro-tunnel statement notes that the debate over how to replace the viaduct, damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, has gone on longer than World War II and will only be further prolonged by McGinn’s “delay and obstruction.”

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What’s less clear, is what a no, or “reject,” vote on Referendum 1 would really mean.

Referendum 1 itself poses a narrow, procedural question: how the City Council provides notice to the state to begin tunnel construction. A vote to approve the referendum allows the City Council to direct the state Department of Transportation to proceed with construction.

A vote to reject the referendum means the council must adopt a new ordinance before construction begins. That ordinance would be subject to a veto by McGinn and, potentially, another ballot referendum.

Legal experts say the referendum can’t stop the state-funded highway project, which already has the approval of the City Council, former Mayor Greg Nickels and the Legislature. The state has awarded construction contracts, and plans to start digging in the fall.

But tunnel opponents hope a strong “no” vote will force politicians to halt the project and consider other options for replacing the viaduct. They argue that the tunnel is too expensive and that there will inevitably be cost overruns passed on to Seattle taxpayers.

They also note that the tolling necessary to complete the funding will divert more cars onto already-clogged city streets.

“If we can’t afford the tunnel and it doesn’t work (to move traffic) and Seattle doesn’t even want it, that changes the calculus,” said Esther Handy, campaign manager for Protect Seattle Now, which put Referendum 1 on the ballot.

McGinn is treating the referendum as an up-or-down vote on the tunnel.

If a majority of voters support Referendum 1, he says he will drop his opposition to the tunnel. And if the vote goes the other way, the mayor says council members should look at other options.

“This is the first chance the public has had to vote on the tunnel’s merits. If they vote for the referendum, they want the City Council to go ahead,” McGinn said. “If they vote no, the council has to re-evaluate the project. I’ve committed to follow the voters on this. I think the City Council should, too.”

But City Council members, five of whom are up for re-election this fall, say they doubt that anything other than an overwhelming “no” vote on the referendum could change their minds.

They have a number of reasons for confidence.

No strong slate of anti-tunnel candidates has emerged to challenge the incumbents. Most of the city’s Democratic district organizations are backing the pro-tunnel vote, and Seattle’s legislative leaders show little inclination to revisit their approval of $2.4 billion in state funding.

“Unless the mayor, the council, labor, business and environmental leaders come united to the Legislature with an alternative proposal, there’s no interest in Olympia in getting involved in a Seattle food fight,” said Sen. Ed Murray, chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

Labor and business leaders, typically large donors to political candidates, are also the biggest donors to the pro-tunnel referendum campaign. They’ve argued that the tunnel retains a vital corridor for freight and traffic, creates construction jobs and opens the waterfront to parks and open spaces.

City Council members say that the tunnel emerged as the best solution to replace the viaduct after dozens of public meetingsand a yearlong citizen stakeholder process that in 2009 recommended the tunnel over a rebuilt viaduct or a surface-transit option — if funding could be obtained.

“To say it was a backroom deal is insulting,” said Tom Rasmussen, chair of the Council Transportation Committee. “A ‘no’ vote (on the referendum) allows the mayor to continue to debate this issue. It will only cause greater cost and disruption. I’ve gotten no indication that that’s what people want.”

Similarly, Councilmember Tim Burgess says a ‘no’ vote would require the council to pass another ordinance to go forward with tunnel construction. That could be challenged by another referendum, dragging the fight out longer.

Burgess predicted that a second referendum would take a year to reach the ballot. “Construction on the tunnel will be well under way,” he said.

Councilmember Jean Godden, another tunnel supporter, has the most opponents among council incumbents. But three of the four challengers support the tunnel. And the only anti-tunnel candidate in the race has raised the least money.

The Council’s lone tunnel opponent, Mike O’Brien, sees the absence of strong, pro-tunnel challengers as an indication that the project enjoys the support of the business and labor community who write checks for campaigns. That doesn’t mean the public supports the project, he said.

And even if his colleagues on the council won’t be swayed by a ‘no’ vote on the referendum, he thinks the Legislature will.

“I don’t think they can ignore it (the Seattle vote),” he said.

Former Mayor Charles Royer, a tunnel supporter and co-chair of the committee working on redesigning the downtown waterfront, thinks the council can probably ignore an anti-tunnel win. But Royer, who said he was speaking as an individual and not a committee member, noted that a “reject” vote would be a symptom of the acrimony and lack of consensus about how best to replace the viaduct even after 10 years of debate.

“It’s a typical Seattle firing squad. We form it in a circle,” Royer said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or

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