Oke, Lantz and Jackley let us down big time

It would be bad enough if the region’s commuters had been forced to pay nearly $1 billion for something they didn’t want by lawmakers from elsewhere around the state over the objection of our own representatives.

But what makes last week’s agreement in the Washington state Legislature of a deal to construct a second Tacoma Narrows Bridge so despicable is that it was accomplished with the willing — even enthusiastic — assistance of precisely those who were sent to Olympia to protect our interests.

Sen. Bob Oke (R-Port Orchard), in particular, has been easily the project’s most tireless supporter since he was first elected to the Senate many years ago. Likewise, 26th District Reps. Brock Jackley (D-Manchester) and Pat Lantz (D-Manchester) hailed last week’s passage of House Bill 2723 as a triumph for their constituents.

In fact, the deal represents an $800 million betrayal of the 26th District, whose voters would be well advised to remember next November when all three will be up for re-election.

To go back to the beginning, the idea of a second Tacoma Narrows Bridge was suggested in 1993 as one of several pilot projects to be built under Washington’s Public-Private Initiatives (PPI) Act, which allows the state to develop partnerships with private developers to build and maintain big, expensive infrastructure projects like roads and bridges. And because the state cannot afford to pay for something of this magnitude out of its normal transportation budget, it was understood that the bridge would be paid for by charging commuters a toll.

Which would have been perfectly fine if the commuters had been willing to pony up $3 per roundtrip in exchange for relief from the current rush-hour traffic jams that plague the bridge. But by every reliable measure, the residents of the 26th District have consistently given the project their emphatic thumbs down whenever they’ve been asked.

By law, for example, a PPI project cannot be undertaken without first obtaining the approval of the “affected population.” In this case, the Washington State Department of Transportion (WSDOT) in the late 1990s conducted a series of public hearings — which took the form of pep rallies to drum up support for the bridge. Even so, recorded transcripts of the meetings clearly show critics of the project outnumbered supporters by a wide margin.

More to the point, PPI projects must also be put to a public vote. So, in 1998, the state conducted an election on the question of whether a bridge should be built across the Narrows and paid for with a toll. But WSDOT, knowing full well how the 26th District felt on the subject, threw the matter open to voters from Olympia all the way to the Pacific Ocean, inviting tens of thousands of people who don’t even know what the bridge looks like to vote on whether or not those who cross it every day should be required to pay for a new one.

Ultimately, the ballot measure eked out a razor-thin victory. But it did so over the clear objections of more than 80 percent of voters from the 26th District — those most affected by the traffic jams the bridge is ostensibly being built to relieve.

Construction was to have begun in early 2000 and the bridge might have been nearly half finished by now if not for the determined efforts of a handful of Gig Harbor residents who took WSDOT to court and prevailed when the Supreme Court ruled the contract to build the bridge violated several state laws. HB 2723, which passed the Legislature last week, rewrote those laws and, at least for now, clears the way for construction to begin as early as this summer.

But there will almost certainly be legal challenges to this new plan and, God willing, it will suffer the same fate as the previous one.

When that happens and the matter returns once more to the Legislature, we can only hope the 26th District’s elected representatives — the ones who replace Oke, Jackley and Lantz, preferably — can find it in their hearts to fight for our interests rather than conspiring against them.

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