Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels hopes Congress will remember the Alaskan Way Viaduct when it debates a $299 billion national transportation plan early next year. But so far, the prospect...

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WASHINGTON — Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels hopes Congress will remember the Alaskan Way Viaduct when it debates a $299 billion national transportation plan early next year.

But so far, the prospect of federal money for a proposed waterfront tunnel looks shakier than the 51-year-old elevated highway.

Experts say Congress is in no mood to foot the bill for large transportation projects unless local residents chip in a big share.

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But how much state and local governments will raise for the $4.1 billion tunnel remains to be seen, and time is running out.

“The city and state have to demonstrate that we’re going to do something,” said David Dye, who is overseeing the viaduct project for the state Department of Transportation. “If we waver, then we just give them [Congress] a good excuse not to do anything.”

On Dec. 6, Nickels and state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald signed an agreement designating the tunnel option as the “preferred alternative” to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

In 2003, the Legislature provided $177 million for environmental and other studies for the viaduct.

As of now, there is no firm financing plan for the project’s construction.

Nickels and others want Congress to set up an account for so-called “mega-projects” that have national or regional significance but are beyond the financial reach of local or state taxpayers.

“The simple fact is that local, state and existing federal resources are inadequate to replace the viaduct and seawall,” Nickels told a congressional subcommittee last year.

The House version of the highway bill set aside $6.6 billion for mega-projects.

But the Senate did not include a mega-projects provision in its version of the transportation bill, and its fate is uncertain as leaders reintroduce both measures early next year, possibly in January.

The giant bill died this year when House and Senate negotiators could not reach an agreement over various issues.

Given the uncertainty, “my advice is to be conservative and cautious about making grandiose plans,” said Kenneth Orski, who writes a transportation newsletter in Washington, D.C.

Dye, of the state Department of Transportation, said early financing plans call for the state to chip in $2 billion to replace the viaduct through an increase in the state gas tax.

A regional transportation authority would raise an additional $1 billion, and the federal government will be asked to provide $1 billion, hopefully through a mega-projects account that would guarantee multiyear funding.

Dye hopes the Legislature acts early on a gas-tax plan so Congress could see Washingtonians are serious about fixing the viaduct.

However, if a transportation measure fails in the Legislature, “that would be a less positive outcome,” he said.

Time becomes an issue because Congress renews the highway bill every six years, and Seattle would have to wait until 2011 for a second chance, although it could grab small chunks of federal money each year.

Tunnel construction is slated to begin in 2009, according to planners.

If state and local officials are unable to secure federal funding this time around, “it would definitely be a setback,” Dye said.

“Six years is a long time to wait, even in viaduct-land, where things tend to move slowly.”

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com