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Narrows Bridge foes lose last legal challenge

The Washington State Supreme Court on Thursday brushed aside the final legal challenge to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, assuring the span — construction of which began a year and a half ago — will be actually built.

The court, in an 8-1 decision with only Justice Richard Sanders dissenting, upheld an earlier Thurston County Superior Court judge’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the state Department of Transportation by Gig Harbor-based Citizens Against Tolls (CAT).

“In a word, we lost,” said CAT spokesman Randy Boss. “We had hoped the court would stand up for the people and interpret the law. Instead, they decided to interpret the intent of the Legislature, which clearly wanted to see this project built.”

The bridge is the first project in the state — and perhaps the last — to be built under the 1992 Public-Private Initiatives (PPI) Act, which allows the state to contract with private builders on large-scale construction projects.

CAT filed its suit in August 2002, alleging the state awarded the design-build contract for construction of the bridge to United Infrastructure Washington (UIW), a subsidiary of Bechtel Corp., without having first gone through the proper competitive bidding procedures.

CAT also challenged the state’s plan to pay for construction by selling Referendum 49 bonds, which would be repaid by charging a toll to cross the bridge. CAT maintained the bonds could only be repaid with motor vehicle excise taxes, rather than user fees.

Finally, CAT argued it wasn’t given sufficient time to prepare its case when the state petitioned to have the suit heard in an expedited manner by the Superior Court.

The higher court, however, sided with the state on each of the arguments.

Regarding the bidding irregularities, Justice Barbara Madsen, writing for the majority noted, “...the only way to read the PPI Act and the state bidding laws harmoniously is to read the PPI Act as creating an exemption for projects under the PPI Act from the requirements of the state bidding laws.”

As for the bonds, Madsen wrote, “...nothing in the Washington Constitution prohibits the Legislature from enacting a statute that enables the toll revenues to be paid into the state treasury and eventually to reimburse the motor vehicle fund that pays off the Referendum 49 bonds.”

The state lost a similar lawsuit in 2000 over the bridge project, this one filed by the Peninsula Neighborhood Association. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld PNA’s contention that DOT’s contract with United Infrastructure Washington violated several state laws, including one that prohibited the state from imposing a toll on an existing structure.

The ruling delayed the start of construction by almost a year, as DOT had to go to the state Legislature and ask it to rewrite the laws the court said had been broken.

“In that case, we were challenging the contract,” said Boss, who was also instrumental in the PNA lawsuit. “This time, we were challenging the law. That’s a tougher thing to do.”

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