While the Washington Dept. of Transportation won't open the detailed bids for downtown Seattle’s Alaska Way Viaduct replacement project until mid-December, Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) nudged the long-awaited 56-ft-dia, two-mile-long bored tunnel one step closer to reality, when she announced on Oct. 29 that both teams submitting bids that day were at or below WSDOT’s estimate of $1.09 billion.

The viaduct, which runs along Elliott Bay on state Route 99 in downtown Seattle, is nearly 60 years old. The 1989 Loma Prieta and 2001 Nisqually earthquakes pointed to the road’s seismic vulnerability. WSDOT spent $14.5 million in emergency repairs but decided to push for a tunnel option after detecting subsidence.

The contract award is expected in January. After two teams dropped out earlier this year, two teams remain in competition for the job: Seattle Tunneling Group, made up of Lombard, Ill.-based S.A. Healy Co., Spain’s FCC Construction, the Seattle office of S.A. Parsons Transportation Group and the Vancouver, British Columbia, office of New York-based Halcrow; and Seattle Tunnel Partners, which is New York’s Dragados, the construction division of Spain’s ACS Group and Tutor Perini Corp., Sylma, Calif.

Before the evaluated bids are revealed in mid-December, a team of WSDOT, the Seattle Dept. of Transportation, industry experts and the viaduct-replacement program’s advisers will tally technical credits to “identify the apparent best value,” says Kristy Van Ness, viaduct communications manager. The evaluation will award credits for creative ideas that accomplish WSDOT goals and minimize disruptions to the community, Van Ness says.

Even as the tunnel process moves forward, political maneuvering plays a role. Except for waffling on the issue during the 2009 election, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn (D) has opposed the tunnel strongly.

Gregoire has been a staunch supporter all along. “We can’t afford to wait,” she says. “The bored tunnel preserves capacity, is essential to our state’s commerce and keeps traffic moving through the entire construction process.”

She pledges that Seattle residents would not bear any cost overruns.

The design-build bid package mixes lump-sum and shared contingency offers that cover the cost of a tunnel-boring machine, the bore itself and building the road within the tunnel.

“I’m proud that the end result is two proposals that are within our project budget,” says Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.

UPDATED 11/04/2010 The original file has been corrected to represent WSDOT’s engineering estimate for the tunnel-bore portion of the project.