Special Reports

Court gives Narrows bridge the ultimate OK

The Washington Supreme Court has disposed of the last of 14 lawsuits that sought to stop construction of a second Tacoma Narrows bridge, and has given the project a permanent green light.

The justices ruled 8-1 Thursday to uphold a Thurston County judge's decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Citizens Against Tolls. That lawsuit claimed the state had violated competitive bidding laws by negotiating with only one contractor and awarding the $615 million construction project to Tacoma Narrows Constructors.

Assistant attorney general Deborah Cade, who defended the state against the 14 lawsuits - three of which were appealed to the high court - said Thursday's ruling clears the way for the project.

"There's nothing else pending," she said. "This was the last thing."

The lawsuits have been strung out over a decade, and legislators blame part of the rising cost of the project on delays forced by the lawsuits. Squabbling among legislators over how to finance the bridge also caused delays.

The total cost, including financing and contingencies, is $849 million. Drivers who use the bridge will pay $800 million of that through tolls.

Randy Boss, the leader of Citizens Against Tolls, said Thursday that he hadn't read the court ruling. But he said he probably will not ask the justices to reconsider because they seldom do.

However, he said he'll continue to seek fairness for Gig Harbor and Kitsap Peninsula drivers who will bear most of the burden of paying for the new bridge. Boss said he wants taxpayers from all over the state to help pay for more of the Narrows bridge project, just as they are paying most of the cost of other mega transportation projects in other parts of the state.

The statewide gas tax will pay for about $150 million in improvements to Highway 16, but toll-paying drivers will be responsible for almost all the cost of the bridge itself.

The bridge is scheduled to open to traffic in April 2007. The round-trip toll will be $3.

"The whole thing was for equity in how tolls are being applied to mega projects around the state," Boss said.

The new Narrows bridge is the only big-ticket project that is being paid for with tolls, although it's likely tolls some day will be charged on the Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington if that multibillion-dollar bridge-widening project ever is done.

Boss said the Regional Transportation Investment District, which has a list of $12.5 billion in projects it wants to do in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties, should use some of that money to lower the tolls.

There currently is no money for the new Narrows bridge in the plan, and the RTID has not yet decided when it will ask voters to approve its transportation plan and the taxes to pay for it.

Boss said the RTID should help pay for the bridge if it wants to curry favor with voters who will be paying to cross the Narrows.

He said he has been part of three lawsuits over the bridge. Citizens Against Tolls has spent more than $100,000 on legal fees to fight the project, much of it from Boss. He declined to say how much the legal battles have cost him.

One of his lawsuits was successful. Boss sued over the original contract between the state Department of Transportation and United Infrastructure, a subsidiary of Bechtel Corp. That contract allowed tolls on the existing bridge, which the Supreme Court said in 2000 ran afoul of a state law that specifically prohibited new tolls on the bridge after it was paid off.

The Legislature rewrote the law to allow tolls on either bridge, although the current plan calls for tolls only on the new bridge - a one-way structure carrying traffic from the peninsula eastbound into Tacoma.

Don Williams, a Gig Harbor resident who was part of the CAT lawsuits, has since moved to the Tacoma side of the bridge, but Boss says he's staying put.

"I staked out my territory on the Gig Harbor side of the bridge, and that's where I'm going to live the rest of my life," Boss said. "That's why I filed the lawsuits, to get equity for people on this side of the bridge."

The state began borrowing the first installment of $800 million for the project in September 2002. Construction has been under way for about 18 months.

Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436