Ron Paananen, the Washington State Department of Transportation project manager for the Highway 99 tunnel project, has accepted a job in Washington, D.C., for private engineering firm CH2M HILL.

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Ron Paananen, the Washington State Department of Transportation project manager for the Highway 99 tunnel project, has accepted a job in Washington, D.C., with private engineering firm CH2M HILL.

Paananen has been one of the tunnel’s biggest defenders for six years while ushering the project through a contentious public debate.

An expert on the project, he was frequently called on at Seattle City Council meetings and public hearings to answer detailed questions about the project and defend it. Increasingly, he found himself pinned between pro-tunnel city and state officials and tunnel opponents, who sought to discredit him.

Last month, he and other tunnel supporters won a major victory when 58 percent of Seattle’s primary-election voters indicated support of the project by approving a referendum.

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“Technically, the vote didn’t really legally affect the project in a big way, but I think everybody recognizes the significance of the public voting the way they did,” Paananen said. “In my mind, they were saying, ‘Let’s get on with it.’ “

CH2M HILL is one of the largest engineering and design firms in the world and frequently does work for the state, although it is not directly involved in the tunnel project.

The company gave $500 to the pro-tunnel referendum campaign, Let’s Move Forward, in July. (It also contributed $250 last year to the office fund of anti-tunnel Mayor Mike McGinn.)

Paananen leaves the project at a natural point, with environmental reviews complete, the public process virtually finished, and tunneling set to begin next year.

“In my view, he was the glue that kept the project together and moving through the pretty contentious political events of the project-development phase,” said state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.

Paananen’s job with CH2M HILL will be his first private-sector job after 32 years in government work.

“He’s one of the best examples of a public servant that I’ve run into,” said City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a tunnel supporter. “There were times when it was really tough for him. He was on a hot seat, and he handled it incredibly well.”

Paananen, 54, said his departure has nothing to do with frustration about the tunnel project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, though he said he’s had to be “more visible than I ever would have imagined.”

As the civic process unfolded, tunnel opponents accused Paananen and his department of playing politics.

However, City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, the council’s lone tunnel opponent, praised Paananen for giving him straight answers, even when the two men disagreed.

“One of the things I really admired about Ron is as someone with an engineering background, he was more interested in talking about facts instead of any kind of political spin,” he said.

Linea Laird, an engineer who has been working on the Highway 99 project and managed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge project, will replace Paananen, who will leave this month and start his new job Oct. 3.

Another project leader, Bob Powers, who is deputy director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, is leaving his job next week. He is taking a yearlong break to tour the country with his family and after that intends to come back to City Hall.

Seattle has hired Bellevue Transportation Director Goran Sparrman to replace Powers.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or Staff reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.

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