Lawsuit may be last stand for bridge plan

"With Wednesday's adjournment of the Washington state legislature, the plan to build a second Tacoma Narrows Bridge - already in critical condition - went on life support. And a judge's decision next Friday could pull the plug entirely.Lawmakers had been working since January to break an impasse over competing House and Senate versions of the plan but were unable to reach a compromise before heading home. There remains a remote chance Gov. Gary Locke could call legislators back to Olympia for a fourth session, or that negotiators could work out a deal in the fall. But in all likelihood, the Narrows Bridge won't be back on the table until January - if then.I haven't a clue what's going to happen, said a discouraged Jim Metcalf, a spokesman for United Infrastructure Washington, the private developer that had contracted with the state to build the $800 million toll bridge. We're just waiting for the state to make a decision, which it seems incapable of doing.Even if lawmakers are able to resurrect the project when the 2002 legislature convenes in January, the pricetag will certainly be much higher - so much so that Metcalf said he can no longer guarantee a $3-per-roundtrip toll.At that point, it will be whole new ballgame, he said.UIW had been hoping to break ground on the structure earlier this year. But that timetable had to be scrapped when the state Supreme Court in November ruled the company's contract with the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) violated a 1962 law that prohibits the state from imposing a toll on a road or bridge that has already been paid for.Bridge proponents expected the remedy would involve the relatively simple task of rewriting the law, and Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, quickly submitted a bill that did just that.But Oke's measure, which passed the Senate on three separate occasions, was killed in the House of Representatives by Co-Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, who would prefer a plan that involves more public funding and doesn't turn control for setting toll rates over to a private company.The resulting deadlock was never broken.The legislature basically screwed this project, Metcalf said. At this point, I don't even know if there is a project.In the meantime, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Strophy is expected to hand down a ruling on Aug. 3 that could deal a death blow to the entire concept. The case in question is a lawsuit filed by the Peninsula Neighbors Association (PNA) in January which sought to force UIW to cease all work on the bridge until the legal problems were settled. On three different occasions, Strophy has postponed making a ruling in the case, apparently hoping the legislature woud take the matter out of his hands by reaching an agreement.I think he's tried to accomodate the state and UIW up to this point, but now it's time to face the music, said PNA attorney Shawn Newman. The Supreme Court has already said the existing contract is unenforceable and the legislature has had ample opportunity to fix the problem. But it didn't do so, and it's up to the judge to tell United Infrastructure they can't spend any more of the taxpayers' money fulfilling a contract that doesn't exist.According to Metcalf, United Infrastructure isn't currently involved in any design or construction work. But if the contract is voided the company could seek to recover expenses already incurred, including legal fees and lobbying costs. Estimates are those costs could run as high as $35 to $40 million.In the end, it came down to legislative arrogance, Newman said. They've known since this project was first proposed that there were legal problems with it. But they chose to go ahead anyway.The state didn't anticipate that anyone would realize the contract violated the law and would file a lawsuit over it, he said. And when we did, they put all their eggs in the basket of a legislative fix that never happened. "

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