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Bridge impasse may be difficult to break

"As the clock ran out last Sunday on the 2001 Washington state legislative session, lawmakers appeared to have reached an unbreakable impasse over competing House and Senate versions of a plan to build a new Tacoma Narrows Bridge.Which, ironically, is why even bridge opponents believe some sort of a compromise will be worked out during the 30-day special session that began Wednesday. If we come out of the special session without an agreement, the bridge will be dead, said Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, and that would be a tragedy for the whole region. I hope and pray every day that doesn't happen. But at this point, who knows?Voters in 1998 narrowly approved a ballot measure calling for a partnership between the state and a private company, United Infrastructure Washington (UIW), to build a tollbridge alongside the current Narrows Bridge.Ground was to have been broken on the structure by January, but in November the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a citizens' group from Gig Harbor that had filed a lawsuit to block the project. Since then, a number of lawmakers have sought to craft legislation that would clear the legal hurdles identified by the court.Oke is the author of SB 5130, which preserves the basic shape of the original plan but exempts the bridge project from a 1961 law that prohibits the state from imposing a toll on structures that have already been paid for. The Supreme Court in November ruled the state's plan to restrict the existing Narrows Bridge to westbound traffic while charging $3 to make a return trip on the new eastbound-only bridge violated the intent of the law.Meanwhile on the House side, Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, is co-sponsoring a bill along with Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, that also would exempt the bridge project from the no-toll statute. In addition, HB 2195 would increase the state's share of the funding burden while relieving United Infrastructure of the ability to set its own toll rates.Oke's bill has already won approval in the Senate. But Chopp, as co-Speaker of the House, has vowed he will never let Oke's measure come to the floor for a vote because it's too expensive and doesn't provide adequate public oversight for United Infrastructure.Chopp's version, meanwhile, never made it out of the House Transportation Committee during the regular session because the committee chair, Democrat Ruth Fisher of Tacoma, opposed it. The bill can be brought directly to the House floor for a vote during the special session, however. Whether Chopp and Lantz have the votes to win there and, later, in the Senate, remains to be seen.Whatever happens will probably get done in the last 10 minutes on the last day of the session, said Lantz. It will be the result of a lot of negotiations and someone will finally say, 'I give.' As soon as that happens, it will get done in a nanosecond.Oke has said all along he would support just about any plan that would get the bridge project back on track and, with his endorsement, Chopp's bill would have at least a fighting chance in the Senate.But then there is the question of lawsuits. The Gig Harbor-based Peninsula Neighborhood Association (PNA), which prevailed over the state in court last November, has promised to litigate any solution it disagrees with. Legal maneuvering has already delayed the project for a year or so; PNA members know another lengthy setback could kill it entirely. Oke's bill, which only changes those elements of the plan shown to be a violation of the law, would seem the most lawsuit-proof. But PNA has offered its conditional approval to Chopp's bill, promising not to challenge it in court if certain conditions are met.But Peninsula Neighborhood Association isn't the only possible litigant. Citizens Against Tolls (CAT), a separate and more militant affiliation of bridge opponents which raised money to pay PNA's legal bills, promises it's ready to challenge either solution in court.We'll look very carefully at what the Legislature does, said Citizens Against Tolls spokesman Randy Boss, who was instrumental in helping PNA prepare its earlier lawsuit. I can't imagine there won't be something in there we don't like.Boss, who ran unsuccessfully against Lantz for the 26th District House seat in November, said the fundamental flaw the bridge plan will never overcome, in his estimation, is the need to do it as a public-private initiative. You'd think someone in the legislature would one day look at this program and realize how screwed up it is, he said. Originally, five construction projects were proposed by the state as PPI possibilities, Boss said. The other four were all dropped because of a lack of public support. The only one that's left is the Narrows Bridge, and it's been shown by the Supreme Court to be illegal. What's wrong with this picture? The problem isn't the law; the problem is the plan. "

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