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I-695's passage isn't likely to derail bridge plan

"Building a second bridge over the Tacoma Narrows is just too important to let a little thing like Initiative 695 stand in its way.That’s the position bridge opponents expect the state to take in the wake of Tuesday’s resounding victory by the hotly debated tax-reduction measure.“The passage of I-695 could, and by all rights should, kill the bridge project,” said Randy Boss, spokesman for the anti-bridge Peninsula Neighborhood Association. “But it won’t. The state has too much at stake here. They’ll find a way to keep it alive.”The initiative, which replaces the state’s existing motor vehicle licensing formula with a flat $30 annual fee, stands to reduce revenue available for transportation projects by around $750 million per year. The state Department of Transportation had earmarked a large chunk of that annual windfall to pay for $350 million worth of improvements to State Route 16 associated with the new bridge.Without the license tab money, however, the state may not be able to make the planned road improvements. And without those improvements, building a new bridge would not be feasible. “The money was going to be used to widen (SR-16) from Union Avenue (in Tacoma) to Olympic Drive (in Gig Harbor),” Boss said. “If you don’t widen the road, you’re going from two lanes on either side of the bridge to three lanes on the bridge and then back to two lanes again. That would only make the traffic problems worse.”State Rep. Tom Huff, among others, has promised to withdraw his support for the bridge project unless the SR-16 improvements are made. Rep. Ruth Fisher of Tacoma, who chairs the House Transportation Committee in the Legislature, still supports the bridge. But Boss believes I-695’s passage may force her to decide between the bridge and her own pet project--extending State Route 167 from Puyallup to Fife.“They can’t do everything. They have to start lopping and chopping somewhere,” Boss said. “(Fisher) is pretty ticked off about I-695 passing, and she might decide to take her anger out on the bridge.”“At this point, we’re proceeding with the bridge project just as we always have, and we’ll continue to do so until we’re instructed to do otherwise,” said Jerry Ellis, director of transportation partnerships for DOT.“Obviously we’re going to have to make some substantial cutbacks somewhere along the line,” Ellis said. “The voters have spoken and we have to respect that. But as for what that could mean for this particular project, anything I said would just be conjecture, and I’m not going there.”DOT contracted last spring with a private company, United Infrastructure Washington, to build the bridge and pay for it by collecting tolls. As part of that deal, the state agreed to put up $50 million to help offset development costs. But with transportation revenues suddenly in short supply, it’s possible those funds could be diverted into other projects, which could also doom the bridge.Boss doesn’t believe that will happen. “The bridge is a standalone issue,” he said. “DOT can’t afford to let it die. They’ll steal the money from some other project if they have to, but they’ll find a way. Believe me.”The Narrows Bridge, assuming it is built, would be the first project constructed under the Public-Private Initiatives Act, which empowers the state to contract with private companies like United Infrastructure to build public works projects. “They envision using (the act) to do projects all over the state,” Boss said. “If they lose the Narrows Bridge, they’re screwed everywhere.”Boss predicts DOT will find the money to fund the SR-16 improvements either by cutting some other project or by asking the state to make the road widening part of the bridge construction contract it has already signed with United Infrastructure. That would mean either charging tolls of more than the projected $3 or extending the tolling period.“Somehow, I doubt that charging higher tolls would stop DOT from continuing with this project,” Boss said."

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