Judge boots bridge foes' lawsuit

"A Thurston County Superior Court judge on Friday rejected a lawsuit that would have pulled the plug on what little work is currently being done on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge - at least until legal questions about the project are resolved.Gig Harbor-based Peninsula Neighborhood Association (PNA) originally filed its suit in January, two months after the Washington Supreme Court had ruled the state's contract with a private company to build the project was unenforceable because it violated several state laws.The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and its private developer, United Infrastructure Washington (UIW), responded to the Supreme Court's ruling by continuing to acquire right of way and obtain permits while state lawmakers tried to rewrite the laws the contract violated. PNA, however, asked the court to stop all work - and prevent the expenditure of any more public money - until the Legislature acted.Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Strophy delayed his ruling three times, hoping the lawmakers would settle the question for him. But when they adjourned for the year without a bridge solution, Strophy was forced to act.The Supreme Court used the word 'unenforceable' instead of 'invalid' or 'illegal' to describe the contract, he said. I think there must have been a reason.Strophy concluded the high court used the word it did in order to leave the door open for lawmakers to craft a legislative fix without throwing the agreement out altogether.The contract as written is unenforceable, he said. But it is not invalid or illegal. The language used invites further negotiation with respect to financing.PNA attorney Mickey Gendler disagreed with Strophy's interpretation. I don't see how you can conclude anything like that just from the fact that the court happened to choose one word instead of another, he said. Our position is that the (Supreme Court's) decision means just what it says - that the contract can't be legal because it doesn't comply with existing laws.Assistant State Attorney General Deborah Cade, who is representing WSDOT, said the question of whether the contract was illegal or simply unforceable pending changes would have made little difference in this case anyway. She argued the only work being done on the bridge now is work WSDOT could have done with or without a contract.The money used to acquire the right of way was already appropriated by the Legislature, she said. They haven't worked out all of the details of the funding package yet, but it's not unusual at all for work to go on prior to fully funding the project. The Departement of Transportation has independent authority to do what it's doing, she said. This isn't an atypical situation at all.Strophy agreed. Until the Legislature acts, he said, this project will not go beyond its initial stages - which I'm satisfied are legally financed. "

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