Oke eyes federal solution to bridge impasse

"A second supplementary legislative session wrapped up on Thursday, June 21, with Washington lawmakers still deadlocked over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge project, prompting Port Orchard Sen. Bob Oke to look in the direction of the other Washington for a solution.Meanwhile, a Thurston County judge is scheduled to hand down a ruling on July 6 that could either break the impasse or sink the beleaguered project altogether.Calling his efforts since 1991 to see a new structure built alongside the existing Narrows Bridge a long and disappointing journey for me, Oke this week wrote a letter to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, requesting that she, in her new role as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Transportation Subcommittee, help find federal money to make the plan work.If the federal government would recognize the regional and national defense significance of the Narrows Bridge/Highway 16 corridor and provide enough funding to significantly reduce the amount of tolls and life of the tolls, Oke wrote, there is hope the bridge could be built under the current plan, or that opponents would not file new lawsuits against a new plan.Oke said Murray is in a position to lend the project a hand, but it was too soon to speculate what form federal assistance might take. State Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, added that any federal aid would have to be tied to a comprehensive state transportation package, which Washington lawmakers have yet to reach an agreement on.Construction work on the bridge was to have started in January, but the process was halted in November when a Gig Harbor citizens' group prevailed in a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation, claiming its contract with United Infrastructure Washington to build the bridge and collect tolls violated state law. Washington lawmakers have been trying ever since to craft a legislative remedy but have been divided between two competing plans, one drawn up in the House and the other in the Senate.Oke is the author of SB 5130, which preserves most of the state's original deal with United Infrastucture, only rewriting those laws the state was shown to have broken.Oke's bill won approval in the Senate and has the endorsement of United Infrastructure, but it's currently stalled in the House, where Co-Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has offered up an alternative that would give the state more control over the project and commit more public money to pay for it.(Oke's bill) is dead, said Lantz, who co-sponsored Chopp's alternative bill. Nothing short of a revolution could resurrect it.Last week Lantz and Chopp withdrew their original bill and signed onto a compromise authored by Rep. Val Stevens, D-Vancouver, that kept much of Chopp's bill intact but inserted a provision suggested by Gov. Gary Locke that would permit an oversight board appointed by the state to determine at regular intervals during the construction process whether subsequent funding for the project should come from public or private bonds.Oke has said he would be willing to support the House bill in order to get the project back on track, but he has concerns it might lead to another round of lawsuits. When you change the whole financing method for the project, you're talking about a major change in what everyone agreed to, he said. My fear is that the anti-toll people would be able to take this thing right back to court, and that could set us back years.Randy Boss, a spokesman for Gig Harbor-based Citizens Against Tolls, warns his group has set aside a legal fund in five figures for just that purpose if the legislature reaches an agreement they don't like.In the meantime, Boss and fellow bridge opponents expect a ruling next week in a second lawsuit they filed against the state. After the Washington Supreme Court in November ruled the Department of Transportation's contract with United Infrastructure was unenforceable, bridge foes in January filed a second suit in Thurston County Superior Court seeking to bring all work and planning on the bridge to a stop until the contract problems could be resolved.Judge Richard Strophy twice postponed making a ruling on the case, perhaps hoping the legislature would render the point moot by reaching a compromise. But as the stalemate has dragged on through one regular session and two special sessions with no end in sight, Strophy announced he will issue a decision at 9 a.m. on July 6.While hoping the judge agrees to shut the project down altogether, bridge opponents recognize such a drastic action could backfire on them by galvanizing the legislature into reaching a settlement.The other possibility is that it would void everything that's been done so far and force bridge proponents to start all over again from the beginning. I don't even want to consider that scenario, said Lantz. "

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