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Senate goes to brink over Bertha, 520 bridge project overruns

The hole that Bertha built. Credit: WSDOT

The Washington Senate went MAD Tuesday — as in Mutually Assured Destruction. The nuclear kind. Like in the 1983 flick "War Games."

As of 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Senate had put both Seattle and the wealthy suburb of Medina on the hook for any cost overruns on the State Route 520 bridge project over Lake Washington. And there were still reverberations from a related attempt to make Seattle pay for any overruns on the waterfront tunnel project.

The Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus — an alliance of 24 Republicans and two Democrats — has frequently used the cracked pontoon troubles on the 520 replacement bridge project as evidence that the Washington State Department of Transportation shouldn't  be provided with extra tax money. The 520 project has exceeded its contingency funds by $170 million.

Meanwhile, the coalition has become frayed in recent weeks. With the help of minority Democrats, its leaders zipped through the DREAM Act — in which high school graduates whose parents are undocumented immigrants can apply for state college aid — in less than 24 hours. The coalition's conservative wing, which has called many of the shots in the caucus, was caught off guard by the move on the DREAM Act, which they opposed. Later, the conservative wing apparently retaliated by splitting from the caucus' moderates to help kill a majority coalition teacher-evaluation bill, a defeat that may cost Washington $40 million in federal aid.

Rumblings are that the hardcore conservatives are unhappy with the coalition's moderate leader Sen. Rodney Tom, a Democrat who just happens to be from Medina.

Tuesday rolled around with the Senate ready to vote on a routine and miniscule supplemental transportation budget to adjust road, bridge and ferry maintenance work in 2014-2015.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, and Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, introduced amendments to the transportation bill that triggered alarms for Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle. Ericksen's amendment sought to pay the 520 bridge replacement costs with toll revenues. "I wanted to stop the gigantic sucking sound" of 520 overruns, Ericksen said. Baumgartner's amendment would have made Seattle's property owners responsible for cost overruns on the downtown tunnel project. Baumgartner was unavailable for comment after the Senate showdown.

"I think they wanted to make a statement— just poking at us," said Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way and co-chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Pedersen decided to introduce to file his own amendment to make the property owners of Medina, at the east end of the 520 bridge, liable for cost overruns on the 520 project. "My objective is to get rid of those two (Ericksen and Baumgartner) amendments," said Pedersen midway through Tuesday night's showdown.

Ericksen withdrew his amendment. Then the Senate passed Pedersen's amendment to put Medina on the hook for 520 overruns by a voice vote — in which senators shout as groups or stand in groups to show their positions without a formal roll call. The vote on Pedersen's amendment showed that some Republicans wanted to have Medina pay for 520 cost overruns, or at least wanted to punish Tom. 

Then Baumgartner retaliated with a second amendment to put Seattle property owners also on the hook for 520 cost overruns. A voice vote passed that amendment as well, meaning some Republicans want both Medina and Seattle paying for the excess costs.

All this resulted in leaders in both caucuses huddling to find a way to stop targeting cities. Ultimately, Pedersen withdrew the 520-Medina amendment and Baumgartner withdrew the Seattle-related 520 and tunnel-overrun amendments.

Minutes later, with war averted, the Senate passed the supplemental transportation budget bill 44-5.

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