In an attempt to keep hopes for a new waterfront tunnel alive, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is proposing a smaller, less expensive underground...

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In an attempt to keep hopes for a new waterfront tunnel alive, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is proposing a smaller, less expensive underground replacement for the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct.

A four-lane tunnel would shave $1.2 billion from the $4.6 billion estimated cost of the previously proposed six-lane tunnel but it still could carry as much traffic, the city said.

The larger tunnel had been backed by Nickels and the Seattle City Council to replace the existing six-lane elevated highway.

Nickels said he expects the City Council this week to authorize a ballot measure allowing voters to pick between the smaller tunnel and a new elevated highway.

But it’s not clear if the new proposal — called “tunnel lite” by some people — will win over opponents in the state Legislature.

It’s also not clear if it would satisfy Gov. Christine Gregoire’s ultimatum calling for a voters to choose between a new viaduct or the larger six-lane tunnel.

But Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said Tuesday that both of those options are dead. “Neither will get built, an elevated or a six-lane tunnel,” he said, in unveiling the mayor’s new plan for what he calls a surface/tunnel hybrid.

“This has no fatal flaws,” he said. “This is something that has legs.”

The Mayor’s Office briefed legislators on the proposal last Friday and also has been briefing members of the Seattle City Council.

He said the concern he keeps hearing is cost.

“Obviously we’ve addressed that very directly,” Nickels said. “This is truly a once-in-100-years decision and it’s probably the biggest chance this generation will have to change the face of the city, and we can’t miss that opportunity.”

Convincing skeptical lawmakers won’t be easy.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has said repeatedly that he opposes replacing the viaduct with a tunnel — any tunnel.

In an interview earlier this week, Chopp said it’s unlikely the city will come up with a ballot measure for a tunnel that would address his concerns regarding cost, design and capacity.

“Based on what they’ve told me so far, they are not even close,” he said.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said she would not go along with the city’s new tunnel proposal even if voters approved it. “My concerns are grave enough that I would not consider that the right choice,” she said, noting she’s concerned about the cost of the project and its capacity to carry traffic.

Gregoire’s position on the new alternative wasn’t clear Tuesday. She’s expected to meet today with city officials and others about the matter, said Marty Brown, Gregoire’s legislative liaison.

Governor’s warning

The governor warned Seattle recently that the state would move ahead with replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with an elevated highway if the city fails to let voters decide the project’s future before lawmakers leave town in April.

Ceis said the hybrid tunnel evolved from meetings between the city and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in an attempt to reduce costs. But Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said this is the city’s proposal, not the state’s.

“There has been some work by the city, working with WSDOT, trying to develop tunnel lite,” MacDonald said. “But for the last several days we have not been particularly working with the city.”

What’s crucial, MacDonald said, is that any viaduct replacement maintain the highway’s traffic capacity. Beyond that, he said he couldn’t comment on the city’s plans because he hadn’t seen them yet.

An expert panel appointed by Gregoire to review viaduct proposals sent a letter to Ceis Tuesday supporting, in concept, the smaller tunnel.

“We believe the city and WSDOT can save money by adopting a hybrid design using a narrower tunnel and more transit and traffic improvements on the surface,” wrote Jane Garvey, chairwoman of the panel.

“Instead of stacking the roadways in a deep dig, you can save money and reduce risk by putting them side by side in a shallower tunnel. These design changes alone could save hundreds of millions of dollars,” she wrote.

According to the city’s proposal:

• The state would build a tunnel with four lanes on the same level with 14-foot shoulders that could provide an extra lane each way during rush hour. Whether it would be dedicated to HOV traffic hasn’t been determined.

• Cars entering and exiting on Elliott and Western avenues would have a dedicated lane, along with metered ramps and synchronized traffic signals on Western Avenue, to keep traffic from backing up onto the highway as it does today.

• Third Avenue would become a permanent transit corridor, as it is temporarily with the bus tunnel closed. Ceis said that when the bus tunnel reopens in September, he’s hoping Metro can afford to add additional buses on Third Avenue.

Bob Powers, director of major projects for the city’s Department of Transportation, said the smaller tunnel would save $500 million in construction costs, about $270 million in risk costs, and $400 million in inflation costs and debt service. The project could be finished about 18 months sooner than the larger tunnel, he said.

Ceis said the smaller tunnel could be built without money from the regional tax increase expected to be on the ballot this fall, or from tolls.

Regional money

Without that money, he said, there would be about $3.75 billion available for tunnel construction. That includes $2.2 billion from the state, $500 million from the city for utility relocation, $250 million from a planned local-improvement district on the waterfront, $200 million from the Port of Seattle, along with other sources of funding.

Nickels said he’s confident a majority of the council will vote this week to put the new tunnel proposal on the ballot. Councilwoman Jan Drago, a tunnel proponent and chairwoman of the council’s transportation committee, agreed.

MacDonald said, “It is a political chess game involving some of the most important political people in the state at this point. This deals with political issues, not engineering issues.”

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com