Lawmakers: ‘Reform or repeal’ Public-Private Initiatives Act

"State Rep. Pat Lantz (D-26th District) and Gig Harbor Mayor Gretchen Wilbert were among a collection of witnesses who testified Dec. 2 in favor of several proposals aimed at repealing or reforming the state’s Public-Private Initiatives Act.“I’m telling you right now, not one of you sitting up here would like to have your community suffer as my community has suffered,” Lantz, whose district includes the South Kitsap area, told members of the Senate Transportation Committee at a hearing in Olympia on proposed PPI reforms.“Repeal it or reform it,” Lantz said. “I just wish you could do it retroactively.”Under the controversial PPI law, the state intends to build a second suspension bridge over the Tacoma Narrows, despite the outspoken opposition of most residents in the communities closest to the bridge. Wilbert, testifying before the committee, described the bridge project as “an abysmal failure” which “completely lacks public confidence or support despite an incredible tax-dollar investment in public relations.”The PPI was established several years ago to give the state Department of Transportation the ability to build and improve public roads and bridges without using state money. It authorizes the state to sign contracts with private companies, which build the projects and pay for them by charging tolls.Originally, six projects around the state were to have been built using the PPI model. Of those, five were subsequently killed for lack of public support. The proposed Narrows bridge is the only PPI project left on DOT’s platter. The project is under attack on several fronts, including a shortage of revenue for road projects since the passage of Initiative 695 and a lawsuit filed by a Gig Harbor citizens’ group challenging the constitutionality of the Public Private Initiatives Act.And now several lawmakers have proposed new bills that would directly affect the act and the bridge. They include:• Senate Bill 6041, which would give the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission authority to oversee toll rate increases requested by the private company. The law allows the private company to set tolls and adjust them without direct public participation or even DOT review. The commission regularly reviews electric and telephone company rates and provides a forum for public participation.• Senate Bill 6042, which would prevent the DOT from converting public roadways and bridges into tolled facilities. The existing Narrows Bridge, like a dozen other bridges throughout Washington, has already been paid for by tollpayer. Under state law, tolls can no longer be charged for its use.DOT hopes to get around this requirement by restricting the existing bridge to westbound traffic only. That way, commuters could be charged a $3 toll to cross the new bridge on their return trip without technically being guilty of putting a toll on the existing bridge.SB-6042 would thwart that plan by forcing the state to keep the existing span open and toll-free in both directions.According to Lantz, prohibiting the imposition of tolls on existing free routes is consistent with PPI’s original intent. In support of this view, she quoted former House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen Schmidt, who said in 1995, “`I honestly do not believe that when we passed (PPI) we had any concept that we were going to put, or even consider putting, toll booths on existing lanes.’”• Senate Bill 6043 would require the toll rate be established priior to any public vote or road project. After initial approval, any increase in the tolls would be subject to review and approval by the Utilities and Transportation Commission.• Senate Bill 6044 would require the private company to show all sources of funding before starting construction. This would eliminate a surprise toll increase from a later change to a more expensive funding source after construction has begun. For example, using corporate bonds instead of municipal bonds to fund a project can add several hundred million dollars to the finance charges. Such a switch would dramatically increase tolls.• Senate Bill 6066 is a major revision to the Public-Private Inititatives Act itself. “Over the past six years, five of the original six PPI projects were canceled primarily because of public opposition to tolls and the fear of toll increases without public oversight,” said Randy Boss, a spokesman for Peninsula Neighborhood Association, which filed a lawsuit in July designed to kill the bridge project.“At the Narrows Bridge, the PPI law has been tortuously applied to the detriment of the people who use the existing bridge,” Boss said. “It is time for a complete review of the program by the Senate Transportation Committee. This bill is the first step in correcting the problems.”No witnesses showed up at the Dec. 2 hearing to testify against any of the proposed bills."

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