Seattle residents are mailing their ballots for a referendum Tuesday about permits for the planned $2 billion Highway 99 tunnel from Sodo to South Lake Union, which is supposed to open in early 2016. Here is a look at what the referendum means.

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The state gas taxes have been earmarked, the City Council voted yes, a $1.4 billion construction contract was signed, the environmental-impact statement filed, and a giant tunneling machine is on order.

All that’s left now is for Seattle residents to cast a vote of confidence — or not — on the Highway 99 tunnel.

Ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday, and Seattle Referendum 1 is the most-talked-about issue of the election. The measure deals with permits for the $2 billion tunnel from Sodo to South Lake Union, planned to open in early 2016.

The anti-tunnel Protect Seattle Now campaign is led by the Sierra Club and others who object to highway spending and car pollution. This is the last chance for the public to send a message the tunnel is too risky and doesn’t fit city values, they say.

Tunnel supporters, including most elected officials and business interests, consider the plan the best option to move freight and commuters. Their campaign is called Let’s Move Forward.

King County Superior Court Judge Laura Gene Middaugh, who allowed the citywide vote, said from the bench in May that “the people of the city of Seattle have a right to be involved,” but also: “Is there going to be a tunnel? This doesn’t resolve that.”

Here’s an updated look at Referendum 1:

Q: Is this a vote on whether to build a tunnel?

A: Literally, it isn’t. But it likely will be seen as a political statement on whether Seattleites believe the project is a good idea.

Q: What does the ballot measure ask?

A: Referendum 1 poses a narrow question: How does the City Council give final notice to the state Department of Transportation (DOT) that tunnel-related agreements may proceed?

The agreements, the first phase of which took effect March 30, address utility relocations, street use, design review and liability. Once an environmental statement is approved — probably in the next few days — the council intends to give notice to start a second phase of the agreements, for tunnel construction. Groundbreaking is scheduled for September.

An “approve” vote means the council can give notice to the state to enter final agreements.

A “reject” vote might be read two ways: that voters reject the council’s authority to finalize the agreements, or they merely reject the method of doing so, to “give notice” in an open meeting.

Q: Does the City Council have to obey the results?

A: It does. This is not a mere advisory vote.

But the pro-tunnel council could undo an anti-tunnel result.

Let’s say the anti-tunnel or “reject” side wins.

City Attorney Pete Holmes said the City Council can give DOT notice to proceed with the agreements — but that must be done by passing a new ordinance. Anti-tunnel Mayor Mike McGinn could issue a veto. A supermajority of six council members would be needed for an override.

Eight members favor the tunnel, but strong opposition by the people could pressure some to reconsider their positions, the anti-tunnelers hope.

If the council holds firm, the question arises: Could tunnel foes launch a second petition drive for a referendum against the new ordinance? A judge likely would sort out such a hamster-wheel scenario.

Q: Can the state go ahead, without final notice from the city?

A: Paula Hammond, state transportation secretary, has said if the construction agreements aren’t ratified promptly, she intends to begin construction as if they are. In the unlikely event the council turned against the tunnel, DOT would need to consult with the governor, top legislators and others, “and have a long discussion.”

Q: Would a “reject” vote stop the tunnel politically?

A: Many tunnel opponents hope the voting result persuades state lawmakers to change the funding laws to support a mix of transit with improvements to local streets and Interstate 5.

Not likely, says state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle. The Legislature designated $2.4 billion toward a tunnel in 2009.

“Why would my colleagues from outside Seattle in the Legislature step back into a Seattle food fight, during the worst economic crisis of my lifetime?” Murray says. “I think legislators are more concerned with finding money for K-12, higher education, human services.”

Gary Manca, attorney for the anti-tunnel Protect Seattle Now campaign, says that if lawmakers expect to win enough Seattle votes to pass a future statewide transportation plan, they had better heed what he expects to be the city’s Referendum 1 mandate, against a tunnel and for transit.

Q: How much money is at stake?

A: Highway 99 project administrator Ron Paananen says about $800 million has been spent so far, including studies, engineering, grants for associated city roads such as Spokane Street, and new approach spans in Sodo.

For just the 1.7-mile tunneled corridor, spending has reached about $298 million. This includes $71 million to tunneling contractors for their final design work under way. If the tunnel somehow were canceled, Paananen said, the budget available for any different plan “is probably down to about $1 billion.”

Current state law says the Highway 99 project, to replace the old Alaskan Way Viaduct, must include a tunnel. The state Constitution restricts gas-tax money to “highway purposes,” which includes ferries and local roads.

Opponents say lawmakers have the power to change state-funding methods so a greater share goes toward transit.

Esther Handy, Protect Seattle Now campaign manager, criticized the ongoing cost of the tunnel, and potential new highway taxes, while the state slashes health care, early childhood education and social services. “People are going to get fed up if the state keeps investing in roads and not our priorities,” she said.

Q. Is there a dedicated freight route in place if no tunnel is built?

The state has prepared for years to build a big Sodo interchange, even before a tunnel was chosen in January 2009. That project would include truck lanes to get freight to Terminal 46, and can link to a tunnel, surface or elevated route.

Even with a tunnel, much of the freight, for instance from Fishermen’s Terminal to Georgetown, would take surface streets, because the tunnel doesn’t have exits leading to the northwest. But the Port and shipping interests say a non-highway option would cause severe congestion that interferes with trucking — including 1,500 short-haul trucks that circulate between rail yards, container docks and warehouses south of downtown.

Protect Seattle Now argues that high tunnel tolls, estimated in the environmental statement to peak at $4 to $5 an hour, would divert tens of thousands of drivers onto the streets, wiping out any traffic benefits. The DOT admits it needs to find a way to reduce toll rates.

Another group, Seattle Citizens Against the Tunnel, tends to favor a new or fixed elevated highway, to provide the most road access.

Q. If the tunnel gets built, are there assurances the waterfront will be turned into public park space?

Good intentions abound, but the city doesn’t have a proposal yet to raise $123 million for parks, the amount envisioned in the governor’s 2009 agreement with the Port, city and King County.

That hasn’t deterred Seattle from signing a $6 million contract with renowned architect James Corner to propose creative ideas here. Corner converted an abandoned New York viaduct, the High Line, to a green promenade, and a pier in Philadelphia into a riverfront park.

For Seattle, he has suggested public lawns, wide pedestrian overpasses, and a gleaming new ferry-terminal entrance, among other visions.

The state would pay to remove the viaduct, as well as a waterfront boulevard that includes bike lanes and landscaping. This assumes the state would adhere to its City Council agreements and eat any cost overruns.

The project ought to free up an 80-foot strip of public open space along Elliott Bay, says Paananen; the city anticipates 9 acres of land for parks.

Development of city parks could be funded by citywide taxes, by fees on property owners who benefit, or a mixture.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or