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Bill would make tolls on bridge legal again

"As promised, Sen. Bob Oke wasted little time trying to put the controversial Tacoma Narrows Bridge project back on track. Three days into the 2001 legislative session, the Port Orchard Republican last week introduced a bill that would repeal the laws the Department of Transporation was found to have violated in its efforts to construct a toll bridge alongside the existing span.Ground was to have been broken around Jan. 1 on the $800 million project, but the state Supreme Court in November ruled DOT's plan illegal in two ways. First, it was found to violate a 1962 law that prohibits levying a toll on an existing structure. Second, the court said the state could not allow a private company to regulate tolls on a public road or bridge.Oke's bill would alleviate those two difficulties by rewriting those laws.The Tacoma Narrows Bridge is the main arterial feeding the entire Olympic Peninsula, Oke said. It's a very dangerous situation and it needs to be fixed. We've looked at every way to do this project and this is the only way that works. But without changing the law, it can't be done.What makes this project unlike other public infrastructure projects is that it's the first to be undertaken using the 1993 Public-Private Initiatives Act, which allows the state to contract with private developers to build and maintain public structures - and to pay for them with tolls. Transportation officials say the cost of projects of this scope has grown too large for the state to pay for them using tax dollars, and PPI arrangements are the only way they can be built.The measure introduced by Oke last week would exempt all PPI projects from the laws the court found were violated. Since the Narrows Bridge is the only PPI project currently being contemplated by the state, Oke believes his bill amounts to a needed one-time exception. I'm firmly convinced the existing bridge is unsafe and the state is responsible for that, he said. When the PPI Act passed in 1993, it was always intended that it would take precedence over other laws. But the court didn't see it that way.The PPI is generally believed to supercede the other laws, agreed Washington State Assistant Attorney General Deborah Cade, who represented the state in the Supreme Court hearing. That was the intent of the act. We were very suprised the justices read it differently.Cade, whose office helped Oke draft his proposal, said the wording of the bill addresses all the major legal hurdles thrown up by the court. By and large, the Supreme Court ruling was very favorable to us, she said. It didn't find any constitutional problems, just a couple of legal ones. They gave us a road map for correcting the problems and that's what we're attempting to do.Outspoken bridge opponent Randy Boss agrees Oke's bill, does a good job of eliminating the laws they've broken, and stands a reasonable chance of passage in the Senate. But he believes it is ultimately doomed to failure. I think it's an egregious and pretentious act, Boss said. Bob Oke is supposed to be down there upholding the laws of the state, not rewriting them to suit his agenda.Oke's bill is currently before the Senate Transportation Committee. If approved there, it will be voted on by the full Senate and, if approved, will be taken up by the House of Representatives.While 24 senators signed on support of Oke's bill, Boss said, Most of them didn't even read it. They just signed it as a favor to Bob. But I think he'll find the atmosphere in the House much less collegial.Even should the bill become law, Boss warns, its problems won't be solved. We're ready to challenge any decision in court again, he said. We beat them before and we'll do it again, if need be. "

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