IT’S no secret that the Washington State Department of Transportation has been embroiled in a series of missteps and costly errors that have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions over the past several years.
Media coverage has been extensive, and the episode has significantly damaged the reputation of one of the state’s largest and most important agencies. We need fundamental reforms that bring transparency and accountability to WSDOT so that the public’s trust can be restored and citizens may be inclined to support new funding for needed projects. Without showing we are serious about vital reforms, the members of the public would never support a new gas tax. After all, it’s the taxpayers who foot the bill for our state’s transportation mismanagement.
Our first priority is to regain the public’s confidence and assure taxpayers that business will not be as usual at WSDOT. Some of the necessary reforms include:
• Returning state sales-and-use tax on highway capital projects to the state’s transportation budget — where most citizens assume it’s already going anyway — instead of redirecting it to the general fund.
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• Adding congestion relief and improved freight mobility to the list of WSDOT priorities, a common-sense reform that many would be surprised to know is not currently one of the department’s goals.
• Increasing transparency and accountability by requiring WSDOT to disclose design errors, determine how those errors would be rectified and prevented from happening again in the future.
• Streamlining environmental permitting, which would enhance WSDOT’s ability to complete projects by requiring permits be issued within 90 days of filing a permit application. The Skagit River Bridge, which was constructed in just four months, provides a prime example of how cutting through bureaucratic red tape can dramatically reduce delays and project costs.
Yet, the Democratic co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Tracey Eide of Federal Way, appears to be holding these and other reforms hostage until the Senate passes a gas tax increase to fund new road, transit and pedestrian projects.
Eide said this during a committee hearing early in the legislative session. When her Republican co-chair, Sen. Curtis King of Yakima, unveiled a compromise package, Eide publicly reiterated her stance saying, “I get a package, [then] we’ll hear reforms. … It’s the only leverage I have.”
Respectfully, Eide has it backward.
Most of her colleagues in the House appear to agree with me. Before taking up a transportation tax, last year the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed my bill that would have required the Department of Transportation to submit a report to the Legislature detailing design errors on highway construction projects that cost taxpayers more than a half-million dollars. This cost-saving reform is supported by nearly everyone in the Legislature — including WSDOT Secretary Lynn Peterson.
The bipartisan bill passed the House by a vote of 87-7 in the regular session, and again in the special session 82-3. This year, I introduced a similar bill in the Senate, and it is that bill and other key reforms that Sen. Eide will not allow out of her committee. This is baffling.
Taxpayers are reasonable. They value government and are willing to fund it — when they believe government is using their hard-earned wages (through taxes) prudently. Taxpayers don’t demand perfection, they just need to know government officials are being as careful with public funds as they are with their own. That clearly is not happening on megaprojects managed by WSDOT.
Without serious reforms, any chance of repairing and improving the state’s transportation system is probably doomed. Without serious reforms, any chance of repairing and improving the public’s trust is surely doomed.
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, represents Washington’s 28th Legislative District