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Bridge bill wins approval

Washington state lawmakers on Wed-nesday reached agreement on a legislative solution to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge impasse. Barring further complications, the controversial $800 million project could be under way as soon as this summer.

Meanwhile, bridge opponents vow to mount a second legal challenge that could yet delay or even kill the plan.

“It’s been a long trip for me, close to 12 years,” said a jubilant Sen. Bob Oke (R-Port Orchard) after the Senate approved by a 42-6 vote House Bill 2723. “There have been many stops and starts, many disappointments, and, finally now, there will be safe passage across the Nar-rows.”

The bill, which Gov. Gary Locke is expected to sign, authorizes the state to borrow up to $800 million to finance the project, which will be paid for by tolls. The bill also establishes a citizen advisory panel to oversee tolls on the new bridge and the existing Narrows Bridge.

The project has been in limbo since November 1999, when a Gig Harbor citizens group won a state Supreme Court decision against the Washington Depart-ment of Transportation (WSDOT).

In that case, the court ruled that WSDOT’s contract with a private developer, United Infrastructure Washington, to build the bridge violated state law because it required imposing a toll on the existing bridge, which was paid off in the 1960s.

The ruling also said the contract gave United Infrastructure too much control over a public project.

Lawmakers hoped to resolve the question in last year’s legislative session by rewriting the laws shown to have been broken. But the session ended with no agreement over competing versions of the same bill — one written by Oke and an alternative written by House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-Seattle).

Before the start of the 2002 session, Oke threw his support to Chopp’s bill, which won approval in the House last month. But the bill ran into trouble when Senate Transportation Committee Chair Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano) threatened to scuttle it unless $39 million needed to fund bridge approaches and upgrades to the existing bridge were passed on to tollpayers instead of being paid for out of a proposed gas tax.

Haugen ultimately backed off her demands and HB 2723 swept through the Senate Wednesday night.

“After six years, we finally got a plan that pays attention to the bridge users,” said 26th District Rep. Pat Lantz (D-Gig Harbor). “This bill puts the public first with public financing, public oversight and public accountability.”

“This is a victory for the folks who depend on the bridge every day,” agreed fellow 26th District Rep. Brock Jackley (D-Manchester). “I’m elated the Senate accepted our version.”

Once the governor signs the bill, the state must negotiate a new construction contract with United Infrastructure. That process, while complicated, could be finished in time for work to commence by this summer.

But bridge opponents say that won’t happen.

“Just because (HB) 2723 passed doesn’t mean anything is imminent,” said Randy Boss, spokesman for Gig Harbor-based Citizens Against Tolls (CATs), which expects to challenge the new agreement in court. “Be assured there will be further litigation that will keep this project from going forward for a long time. If ever.”

Boss said he wasn’t familiar yet with the entire document and hadn’t had a chance to review it with CATs’ lawyer, but, “We had already identified at least two major issues which we consider deal killers, and neither was addressed in this bill.”

Shawn Newman, the attorney who prevailed over the state in the earlier Supreme Court decision, will represent CATs in its legal challenge. “I’m not sure when we’ll file a lawsuit — or at this point if we’ll file one,” he said. “But if we do, from a strategic standpoint, it would be better to do it sooner than later.”

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