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Court to rule on bridge suit-maybe
"A Thurston County Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear oral arguments and - perhaps - issue a ruling on Friday that could bring work on the controversial Tacoma Narrows Bridge project to a complete stop.At this point, however, the question is how much work there is to stop. It's very minimal right now, said Rhonda Brooks of the Washington State Department of Transportation's Economic Partnership Division. We're basically in stand-down mode.Construction was to have begun by last January on the $800 million tollbridge, she said. But the state Supreme Court in November ruled that WSDOT's contract with United Infrastructure Washington (UIW) to build the span was unenforceable because it violated several state laws.Assuming lawmakers would move quickly to rewrite those statutes once the Legislature convened in January, UIW continued its planning and design work while the state purchased right of way for the project. But the Peninsula Neighborhood Association, which had prevailed in the original lawsuit, responded with a second court action demanding that all work be suspended until the legal questions were settled. In turn, the state asked for a summary dismissal of PNA's suit.Judge Richard Strophy has already delayed making a ruling in the case on three separate occasions, presumably in hopes the state Legislature would render his decision meaningless by rewriting the law. But when lawmakers adjourned in August without a resolution of the Narrows Bridge situation, Strophy scheduled a new hearing for Sept. 14.Depending on how things go, he could either rule from the bench on Friday or wait until Sept. 21.We assume at this point he'll do what he should have done in January - tell the state and United Infrastructure to stop spending our money to fulfill a contract that doesn't exist, said Gig Harbor resident Randy Boss, one of the project's most outspoken critics. At that point, they'll have to stop everything they're doing and go back to the Legislature in January to try again. And, frankly, we don't think their chances there look very good.Boss said he has no idea how much work is currently being done on the bridge or how much money is being spent doing it, but he disputes Brooks' assertion that the amount is minimal.In a hearing during August, (a WSDOT spokesperson) said the state was reducing its monthly expenditure on the bridge from something in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per month too something in the tens of thousands, Boss said. To me, that's still pretty significant .And the figure may or may not include money UIW is putting into the project itself, with the expectation it will be reimbursed by the state once the financing package is approved and bonds are sold. But if the project is killed, the company will almost certainly sue to recover its investment.All we're doing right now is purchasing right of way, said Assistant Attorney General Deborah Cade, who is representing the state in the lawsuit. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's not unusual to acquire right of way for projects before the actual funding is secured. It happens every day of the week.Not true, Boss argues. That sort of independent activity may be commonplace with traditional construction projects, but the Narrows Bridge was conceived as a pilot project to be built under the Public-Private Initiatives (PPI) Act, which allows the state to contract with privately owned companies to built large infrastructure projects.There are very specific guidelines that have to be met for a PPI project, Boss said. In this case, it's pretty obvious since none of those rules have been met, the project shouldn't be allowed to proceed.Assuming Strophy agrees with Boss and orders work halted, it could drive the final nail into the project's coffin. Or, it could energize Washington lawmakers to work out a solution next spring. Maybe that's what we need to get it going again, said Sen. Bob Oke (R-Port Orchard). I hope and pray it is anyway.Oke said the most frustrating part to him is he believes he had lined up the votes needed to pass his version of a compromise bill before the Legslature adjourned. But his bill, which passed the Senate three times, never came up for a vote in the House.My fear is that we may never get back to that point, he said. We were willing to increase the amount of public money used in order to get the bill passed - and I think people were willing to go along with it. But when we go back in January, they're going to realize voting for this takes money away from other projects they may be more interested in. And we're going to have a much more difficult time getting it done. "