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Olympia’s tunnel of love?

Speaker Frank Chopp leads House Democrats. Credit: Washington State House Democrats

So, what does Frank think? Always a key question, and almost always very tough to know.

House Speaker Frank Chopp has been rather silent since Governor Christine Gregoire announced her plan for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep bored tunnel: A few quotes here and there, but no definitive statement about just what kind of opposition, if any, he will mount.

For months Chopp has been shopping a very different design — a new elevated, enclosed roadway with two floors of retail below and an expansive park above.

I was hoping to get some time with Chopp when I was down in Olympia this past Tuesday, doing TV interviews with several members of the state Legislature from Seattle. After repeated attempts, I wasn’t able to get even five minutes with the Speaker, who was in and around the Capitol all day.

I did, though, talk with his colleague from the 43rd District, Rep. Jamie Pedersen, who is quickly becoming one of the most respected members of the House. Does he think Chopp is going to pull rank and use his power to try to stop the governor’s proposal? “I don’t suspect that he will insist that it be his way or the highway in this case,” said the tunnel supporter, somewhat revealingly. “He has some legitimate questions,” noted Pedersen. “If those can be answered to his reasonable satisfaction, then I don’t think he is going to stand in the way of the agreement that the governor, the mayor, and the [King County] county executive made.” Note the “if,” but that a colleague close to Chopp is predicting little, if any, drama suggests to me that we can expect the Speaker to drop his opposition at some point in the near future.

If he didn’t, he would be in for a big fight. While the state is another question, most legislators from Seattle and nearby are falling into line with the bored tunnel. Of the eight legislators I interviewed, six were fully on board the governor’s plan (Pederson, Joe McDermott, Eric Pettigrew, Ken Jacobsen, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and Adam Kline). Only one was outright opposed, Sharon Tomiko-Santos. “As far as I can see the tunnel does not enhance the economic vitality of the state of Washington,” said the legislator from Southeast Seattle. She wants an elevated new viaduct.

Up in the northwest part of Seattle, Phyllis Gutierrez-Kenney is also holding out. “Right now I don’t know where I’m at, to be very honest,” said the 12-year veteran, who up to now has been a surface-and-transit supporter — meaning no tunnel, no new viaduct but expanded transit and more lanes on I-5 and downtown. She’s troubled by how the tunnel made an 11th hour comeback. “There is a group of people, and I think it’s smaller than the large group who wanted surface or the elevated, that has come out and made more noise,” she contended, “and some of our elected officials are buying it.”

Just because most of the Seattle delegation is behind the tunnel doesn’t mean, of course, that state legislators from other regions will support the idea. “Let me give you an old phrase around here,” said Sen. Adam Kline of southeast Seattle. “Democrats against Republicans. House against Senate. Everybody against Seattle.” He continued: “If this tunnel were being built in Othello or Ritzville, it would have been done by now.”

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