Senate poised to OK bridge bill

Supporters and opponents alike are predicting a bill that could clear the way for construction of a second Tacoma Nar-rows Bridge will ultimately win approval in the Washington state Senate during the current session.

But what happens to the project after that is strictly a matter of conjecture.

House Bill 2723, which rewrites laws the state was shown to have broken in its original contract to build the bridge, was approved by the state House of Represen-tatives on Feb. 4 by a 52-44 vote. The bill would also allow the state to assert more control over financing and operation of the structure, which is to be built by a private contractor.

Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, believ-es he has at least 60 votes lined up in the Senate — more than enough to assure passage when the measure comes to the floor.

But first it has to get that far. In the Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday, Oke said committee chair Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, expressed reservations about the bill and suggested tacking on several amendments before sending it on to the full Senate.

“That would be a problem,” Oke said. “Unless we pass the same bill the House approved, we’d have to send it back for concurrence, and I don’t know if they could keep everyone together over there. I think changing the bill at this point would kill it.”

Oke said he spoke to Haugen following the hearing and, “She indicated she’s willing to take another look at it.”

Assuming the current bill, or any other, is passed during this session, the only remaining obstacle that could prevent construction from getting under way is another legal challenge from bridge opponents. Oke is confident that won’t happen.

“We’ve had 17 lawyers go over this bill,” he said, “and they’ve assured us it’s 100 percent lawsuit-proof and can withstand any legal challenges.

“Six months after the governor signs this bill,” Oke predicted, “we’re going to be moving dirt.”

Not so, vows Randy Boss, spokesman for Gig Harbor-based Citizens Against Tolls.

“There will be litigation,” he said. “You can quote me on that.”

Boss said his group’s attorney has reviewed the bill passed by the House and pronounced it “riddled with errors and wide open for new lawsuit.”

Citizens Against Tolls, Boss said, is even more vehemently opposed to the bridge than the Peninsula Neighborhood Association, which triumphed two years ago in a lawsuit against the project. In that case, the Washington Supreme Court ruled the state Department of Transportation’s contract with United Infrastructure Washington to build a second bridge violated state law because it would have required imposing a toll on the existing Narrows Bridge to pay for the new span.

The court also said the contract gave a private company, United Infrastructure, too much authority over toll rates.

Oke and other lawmakers spent last year’s legislative session trying to rewrite the laws broken by the contract, but they were unable to come to an agreement before adjourning.

The lawmakers were split last year over competing House and Senate versions of the same bill. The Senate version, written by Oke, simply revised the statutes cited by the Supreme Court but left the rest of the contract intact. The House version, backed by 26th District Reps. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, and Brock Jackley, D-Manchester, made more substantial changes in the contract, designed to give the state more control.

Last week, members of the House passed a modified version of last year’s House bill, this one authored by Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. Oke, in an effort to get the project back on track, pledged to support Chopp’s bill and even testified on its behalf in the House.

“Bob Oke sees this bridge as his legacy,” Boss said. “He doesn’t care how it gets built or who it hurts. He just wants it done.”

Ironically, Boss believes if the Legislature had passed Oke’s bill last year, his group would have had fewer grounds on which to mount a legal challenge. But by opting for a bill that makes sweeping changes in the status of the contract, everything is back on the table.

“This one has lots of new stuff the court hasn’t already ruled on,” Boss said. “We’re fully funded, and we’re ready, willing and able to test these statues in court.”

Boss said Citizens Against Tolls will be represented by Olympia attorney Shawn Newman, who represented the Peninsula Neighborhood Association in its earlier successful suit.

Ultimately, however, Citizens Against Tolls may not even have to win its lawsuit to achieve its aims. “We can tie this thing up in court for a couple more years at least,” Boss said. “As long as there’s a lawsuit hanging over their heads, they can’t sell bonds. And if they can’t sell bonds, they can’t build it.

“Eventually,” he said, “we’re hoping they’ll just give up and leave us alone.”

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