Seattle residents cited cost as their chief reason for preferring the elevated highway, but Mayor Greg Nickels says he won't give up on a tunnel.

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Citing a growing unease over costs, a slim majority of Seattle voters say the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct should be replaced with a new aerial roadway, not a more expensive tunnel, a Seattle Times poll found.

Just 25 percent of voters favor a tunnel through town, while 51 percent want a new viaduct built.

About one-quarter of those polled by Elway Research were either undecided or wanted to tear down the viaduct and route traffic onto surface streets.

The poll was commissioned by The Times after Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council decided last month not to ask voters what they want done with the viaduct, which was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

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Replacing the viaduct is a statewide priority: It’s a regional corridor for commuters and freight, but replacing it with a tunnel — the option preferred by Nickels and the council — would cost an estimated $4.6 billion. That’s about $1 billion more than the last state estimate.

“I actually like the idea of a tunnel and opening up the waterfront. But I’m a pragmatist and the money isn’t there and you’ve got to go where the money is,” said Scott Saunders, 59, a property manager who lives in Ravenna.

Poll methodology

The Seattle Times poll of 400 randomly selected registered voters in Seattle was conducted by Elway Research on Thursday and Friday. It has a margin of error of 5 percentage points, which means there is a 95 percent probability that the results of the survey are within 5 percent of the results that would have been obtained had all registered voters in the city been interviewed.

Source: Elway Research

The poll of 400 registered Seattle voters was conducted Thursday and Friday. Voters were first asked which replacement option they preferred, including tearing down the viaduct and routing traffic onto surface streets. Almost half — 47 percent — said they wanted a new viaduct; 29 percent chose the tunnel.

The voters were then asked their preference after being given the latest cost estimates, announced last month by the state. By a 2-to-1 margin, they said they wanted a new viaduct, which is now pegged at $2.8 billion.

For those who said they wanted a tunnel, demolishing the 55-foot-tall viaduct would make for a more open and inviting waterfront that could be better integrated with downtown.

“Making the waterfront more open and available to people would be a real boon to the city. It could be one of the most beautiful places on the West Coast. I think a new viaduct is a waste of that space,” said Dave Weller, 46, a stay-at-home parent from West Seattle.

A similar poll by Elway Research in June showed that replacing the 53-year-old viaduct was the top transportation priority for Seattle voters. The tunnel was the most popular option in that poll.

“The debate isn’t over — this is Seattle after all — but the public discussion over the summer has clearly moved public opinion away from the tunnel and toward the new viaduct,” said pollster Stuart Elway on Saturday.

“People know the arguments, they have considered them, and more people are concluding that the tunnel is a luxury we can’t afford,” he said.

Gov. Christine Gregoire said Friday she’ll make a decision on how to replace the viaduct, part of Highway 99, by the end of November. Earlier this year, the governor had pressed city officials to hold an advisory vote on viaduct options.

But Nickels and the council declined after the latest state cost figures were released. The council said voters had elected them to make tough decisions.

“I was disappointed when they didn’t allow the vote to go forward,” Gregoire said, “so I’m glad we’re getting some feedback” from The Times’ poll.

Gregoire said she’d also like to hear from commuters who live outside Seattle and use the viaduct.

When told Saturday about the poll results, Nickels said he would not retreat from his pro-tunnel stance.

“We’re going to fight for that. And every opportunity I have to make the case with the governor I’m going to … It’s a decision to be made for 100 years, not a decision to be made on a single poll or a short-term basis.”

The Times poll showed support for a new viaduct was strong across the city. Voters in West Seattle, who often use the viaduct to get downtown and to North Seattle, were the most pro-viaduct, with 60 percent of those polled favoring a new aerial highway.

In explaining their preference, viaduct supporters cited money as their main reason — the tunnel would cost $1.8 billion more than a viaduct. They also said they wanted to maintain the views that drivers now enjoy of downtown Seattle, Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. To a lesser degree, they also say construction of a new viaduct would be less disruptive to traffic than building a tunnel.

Kevin Cain, 46, of West Seattle, wants to rebuild the viaduct and said he’s miffed at Nickels’ passion for the tunnel. “It’s like he’s got a lock on that option and is not willing to entertain anything else. When you’re spending that many billions of dollars I think one needs to look at the options openly,” Cain said.

Eleanor Laxdall, 74, a retired social worker who lives in West Seattle and regularly drives the viaduct, said she supports a new viaduct because it would preserve views. “Any company I have enjoys being driven along the viaduct,” she said.

For tunnel supporters, cost was the least of their concerns.

“I think of value, not price … it’s worth investing,” said Thomas Graham, 30, a University of Washington law student and Magnolia resident.

State officials have not estimated a cost for the surface-street idea, which they do not consider a viable option. They say it would cause gridlock because Seattle streets can’t handle the 106,000 vehicles that travel the viaduct every day.

Terrence Scheibe, 51, said he strongly likes the surface option because it would create open space on the waterfront and actually deter people from driving.

“I used to be in favor of a tunnel but it’s expensive,” said Scheibe, a former Microsoft employee and Capitol Hill resident. “I would hate to see another viaduct. It’s not only a blight on the waterfront, but it’s also noisy.”

How often voters drive the viaduct influenced their decision — somewhat. Those who said they don’t drive the viaduct in a typical month preferred a new aerial highway over a tunnel, 44 percent to 21 percent. Those who drive the viaduct more than 20 times a month preferred a new viaduct to a tunnel, 61 percent to 29 percent.

Whether a replacement is built in the sky or underground, the funding for a new viaduct replacement depends on goodwill from state lawmakers, and possibly voters.

The state has allocated $2 billion for viaduct replacement in the latest gas-tax increase. With federal aid, state officials have said they could round up a total of $2.4 billion toward the project.

Nickels has said he can get an additional $2.2 billion from regional highway taxes, a local property tax on landowners who would benefit from a tunnel, utility fees, tolls, Port of Seattle aid and federal grants.

State officials have warned that if inflation runs 6 percent, or 2 percent higher than they calculated in their likely cost scenario, tunnel costs would rise to $5.5 billion.

Higher gas taxes are not the answer, according to Gregoire, who has predicted that tolls would be a necessary part of any financing plan.

“Whatever decision ultimately is made, we need to be sophisticated enough that we will rally around it and move forward,” Gregoire said.

A prolonged debate with the city, the governor said, “will simply mean delays and money, and delay means we’re putting ourselves all at risk.”

Staff reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this story.

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