Bridge foes make last stand

By Thursday night, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge project will either have cleared its last legal hurdle or the taxpayers of Washington will be looking at a huge and very unwelcome bill.

The Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the appeal of Gig Harbor-based Citizens Against Tolls’ lawsuit challenging the legality of the $850 million construction project, which has been in full swing since January.

It could take several months for the court to make its ruliing, but in any case it’s all but certain at this point construction on the bridge will continue. The only question is whether the state would be forced to eat the $346 million worth of bonds already sold to finance the project.

“I believe the Supreme Court is going to once again rule the state broke the law,” said CAT spokesman Randy Boss. “When that happens, the tollpayers are going to be spared the burden of paying for almost half the cost of the bridge. If we can’t stop the bridge entirely, at least we can make it a little cheaper.”

The citizen’s group’s suit against the state Department of Transportation was first heard on Sept. 16, 2002, in Thurston County Superior Court, where it was dismissed by Judge Daniel Berschauer. The same judge had dismissed a similar suit against the bridge the year before, only to have his ruling overturned on appeal by the state Supreme Court.

“We prevailed in that case and we intend to prevail again,” Boss said.

CAT’s lawsuit rests on three claims:

n The bridge project is being built as a public-private partnership and funded with Referendum 49 bonds. By state law, R-49 bonds can only be repaid using Motor Vehicle Excise Tax revenues, not tolls, as WSDOT is planning.

“These bonds are going to be repaid using MVET revenues,” said Assistant Attorney General Deborah Cade, representing the state in the lawsuit. “The toll revenues will, in turn, be used to replenish the MVET funds being used to pay the bonds. It’s absolutey permissable.”

Boss, however, argues putting the toll revenues into the MVET account and then paying it back out as MVET funds amounts to a kind of money laundering.

“It’s disingenuous to say you’re using MVET money instead of toll revenue when you’re putting the toll revenue in the MVET account and withdrawing it on the other end,” Boss said.

n CAT also argues the construction contract wasn’t competitively bid before being awarded to United Infrastructure Washington.

“It was competitively bid very early in the process,” Cade said. “Judge Berschauer said so already. At this point, that shouldn’t be an issue.”

n Finally, CAT will assert the law passed by the 2002 state Legislature to correct the illegalities the Supreme Court found in the original bridge construction contract violate the state’s “single-subject rule.”

“A piece of legislation can only address one subject and the title of the bill has to clearly state what’s in it,” Boss said. “Neither of those was the case with this bill. The legislators didn’t know what they were voting for.”

CAT, knowing the Supreme Court had already overturned Berschauer once, had vowed to appeal the Superior Court judge’s ruling even before he made it last September. The state, however, anxious to get started with construction, issued the first round of bonds just two days after Berschauer made his decision.

By now, the state has sold $346 million of the estimated $850 million it will take to build new bridge. If the court rules against the state, it will have to repay that money using MVET revenues — money the Department of Transportation had already earmarked for other trasportation projects around the state.

“It’s obvious the state rushed out and sold the bonds before the appeal could be heard so that when they ultimately lost the case, they could say, ‘You can’t kill the project now. We’ve already spent $346 million on it,’ ” Boss said. “But we think that’s beside the point. How much money do you have to spend to avoid following the law?”

Boss said his group remains hopeful the court will ignore the financial ramifications of its decision and rule strictly on the law. “The Superior Court can base its decision on other factors because it knows the Appeals Court will back it up,” he said. “And the Appeals Court knows the Supreme Court is there to back up. But there’s no one to back up the Supreme Court. They have to uphold the law, because if they don’t no one will.”

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