Bridge builders create nonprofit entity

"United Infrastructure Washington, Inc., the private contractor building the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge, has formed a nonprofit corporation - complete with a board of directors - to sell the bonds needed to fund the $650 million project.Because of its nonprofit status, the corporation can sell bonds at a more favorable tax-exempt interest rate than could United Infrastructure. Meanwhile, the seven-member board - composed of individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds and experience in public service, construction and finance - will also be asked to provide oversight on the project, especially in the setting of toll rates.Our main job is to finance the project in a manner that keeps tolls as low as possible for as long as possible, said Vern Scott, a retired sand and gravel construction industry executive from Gig Harbor who will serve as the board's first president.Bill Mahan, a member of the Port of Bremerton Commission and former Kitsap County commissioner, is the only board member from Kitsap County.Other members of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Nonprofit Corp. board of directors include:* Jack (Jake) Bujacich, a former member of the Gig Harbor City Council, former mayor of Gig Harbor and former member of the Pierce County Council;* Dan Grimm, owner of Pacific Capital Services, a former Washington state treasurer, and former member of the Washington State House of representatives from Puyallup;* Judith Johnson, regional vice president of First Community Bank, former Pierce County Housing Authority commissioner and past president of the Pierce County Development Corp.;* Erling Mork, former Pierce County city manager and former president of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County; and,* Sally Walker, a former member of the Washington State House of Representatives and member of the Pierce County Council.We're very pleased that such a qualified and diverse community board will be joining the public-private partnership between (the Washington State Department of Transportation) and United Infrastructure, said UIW vice president Larry O'Bryon.Critics of the bridge project, however, regard the board as little more than a rubber stamp for United Infrastructure.I don't know how every member of that board feels about the bridge, but it's safe to assume since they were hand-picked by United Infrastructure they'll do whatever the company tells them to do, said Randy Boss, a spokesman for the Peninsula Neighborhood Association, which opposes construction of a new bridge.Even if they wanted to oppose company, the board members' primary responsibility is to the people who buy the construction bonds, Boss said. If the company tells the board it needs to raise the tolls in order to make sure the bondholders get paid, they'll do it. They answer to the bondholders and they're paid by United Infrastructure, but they have no responsibility at all to the people who travel over the bridge and have to pay the tolls.United Infrastructure is contractually obligated to set tolls at $3 per roundtrip when the bridge opens in late 2004 or early 2005, but there's no guarantee that rate won't go up quickly, and by a substantial amount.Members of the UIW nonprofit board are slated to receive a stipend of no more than $100 per meeting for their service, but Boss notes there's no guarantee that amount won't go, too.They're the board of directors for this company, he said. They can do whatever they like. If they decide they're doing too much work for $100 a meeting, they can vote themselves $1,000. And their expenses come out of the maintenance and operations budget for the bridge, which is paid by toll revenues even before the bonds are repaid.The nonprofit coporation will also require a building of its own, complete with office staff and equipment, Boss noted, all of which must be paid for by tolls. United Infrastructure keeps saying there's a cap on how much profit they can earn on the bridge, so they have no incentive to raise tolls, Boss said. But we've known all along the real money to be made is in the maintenance and operations."

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