The state Department of Transportation announced Thursday it won't file a last-minute court appeal to block the Seattle tunnel referendum from the ballot.

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The state Department of Transportation announced Thursday it won’t file a last-minute court appeal to block the Seattle tunnel referendum from the ballot.

Referendum 1, in the August primary election, wouldn’t ban a tunnel but deals with a procedural step. City voters are being asked to approve or reject part of a City Council ordinance. The clause describes how the Council would give notice to the state to finalize agreements for utilities and rights of way.

The $2 billion tunnel is the most controversial part of the state’s $3.1 billion replacement for the old Alaskan Way Viaduct, built in the 1950s and at risk of ruin by a severe earthquake.

In the event of a “rejected” vote, the pro-tunnel City Council would still be able to pass a new ordinance to enact the construction agreements, according to City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office. The project might lose a few weeks’ time.

However, the vote also is shaping up as a citizen advisory on the Highway 99 tunnel in general.

Opponents hope that a large “reject” majority would persuade the council or state Legislature to change course. Some activists prefer a non-highway surface-transit option to wean the region away from car dependence, while other opponents want a new elevated structure that provides more traffic capacity.

The issue has been debated this week by Seattle’s Democratic groups, who are divided — to date, the 34th District (West Seattle, Burien, Vashon) and 36th District (Ballard, Magnolia) endorsed the pro-tunnel “approve” side, while the 43rd District (University District, Capitol Hill, Belltown) nearly endorsed a “reject” vote.

Ron Paananen, Highway 99 program administrator, said it wasn’t worthwhile to sue against the referendum, because, “There is no immediate effect on the project whatsoever.” Final design of the record 58-foot-wide bored tunnel continues under an early phase of the agreements, and the state hopes to break ground this fall.

“We look forward to continuing our collaborative relationship with the council as we replace the seismically vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct after 10 years of public debate and evaluation of more than 90 different options,” said a statement by Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.

Gary Manca, attorney for the anti-tunnel Protect Seattle Now campaign, said that if “reject” wins, he could argue that voters are revoking the Council’s authority to enter a tunnel agreement. But he predicted that the main issue is the political message: “The City Council is going to listen to what the voters say.”

The pro-tunnel Move Seattle Forward campaign hasn’t yet decided whether to appeal the decision by Judge Laura Gene Middaugh allowing R-1 onto the ballot, said spokesman Alex Fryer. Monday is the deadline to give notice of appeal.

Final preparations already are under way to print the ballot, but it technically would be possible to avoid counting the R-1 votes if so ordered by a court ruling, said spokeswoman Kim van Ekstrom of King County Elections, answering a reporter’s question.

In a related court hearing Friday, the pro- and anti-tunnel campaigns will argue over an explanatory statement the City Attorney’s Office wrote for the voters’ guide.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com