Narrows bridge progresses as lawsuit flairs up

Gig Harbor-based Citizens Against Tolls (CAT) has filed a motion that would allow its lawsuit regarding the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge to bypass the Court of Appeals and be heard directly by the state Supreme Court.

The court has the option to decline the motion, which would send the case back to the Appeals Court, where it could take up to a year to be heard.

Bridge foes are asking the court to expedite the matter because construction work began in January on the new bridge and continues at a furious pace.

The suit involves the Washington state Legislature’s efforts to cure legal problems with the state’s plans to construct and finance a new $800 million toll bridge.

The main issues are:

l By state law, Referendum 49 bonds used to pay for the project can only be paid off with gas taxes. The state plans to use toll revenues.

l The state Department of Transportion (WSDOT) was required to open the project to competitive bidding. CAT maintains it failed to do so before awarding the construction contract to Bechtel Corp., through its subsidiary, United Infrastacture Washington.

CAT’s lawsuit was originally filed last spring, only to be dismissed in September by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Daniel Berschauer. Although CAT vowed to appeal, the state immediately issued $253 million in construction bonds, effectively clearing the way for ground to be broken even before the legal challenges were resolved.

Two years earlier, Berschauer had thrown out a separate lawsuit against the bridge project, only to see his decision reversed on appeal to the Supreme Court. In that case, Berschauer recognized the question would ultimately be settled by the Supreme Court and he sought to expedite its review. “How can I get this case to the Supreme Court as fast as possible?” Berschauer asked. “Tell me how that should be accomplished. I wish I had some mechanism ... that I could say, ‘Members of the court, here it is.’ It’s going to come to you sooner or later — let’s make it sooner.”

Shawn Newman, CAT’s lawyer, said he will make the same argument in the new appeal that Berschauer did in the earlier case. “A direct review by the Supreme Court is justified,” Newman said, “because the (legal issues) and the bridge agreements, as well as the state’s plan to use toll revenues instead of vehicle fuel taxes to pay off the bonds, involve fundamental and urgent issues of broad public support.”

The state treasurer has so far issued $233 million worth of general obligation bonds for the project — about a quarter of the amount authorized by the Legislature. “Since these bonds are backed only by gas taxes, a favorable ruling will force the state to find ways other than tolls to finance the project,” said CAT spokesman Randy Boss. “We ultimately expect to win this case, so it’s important to get our issues resolved before the state sells more illegal bonds.”

A ruling in CAT’s favor wouldn’t necessarily derail the bridge project, Boss said, but it could force the state to repay any bonds sold with the gas tax, which would reduce the burden on tollpayers. And forcing the state to re-bid the project could result in a bid tens of millions of dollars lower than Bechtel is charging, he predicted.

“We started this lawsuit because of the state’s illegal substitution of tolls instead of gas taxes to pay off the bridge bonds,” said Boss. “It’s a continuation of the community’s effort to achieve fairness and equity on this project.”

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