Suburban rage over the I-405 express toll lanes may have been what pushed state Senate Republicans to oust Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson after three years on the job.
In the end, state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson wasn’t derailed by nearly $400 million in Highway 520 bridge overruns, or even the two-year delay in the Highway 99 tunnel, a pair of projects that she inherited.
Instead, the cardinal sin that Peterson and her department committed was to infuriate suburban motorists.
Senate Republicans on Friday ousted Peterson without warning, by voting not to confirm her, three years after Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her.
Blame a bumpy rollout of Interstate 405 express-toll lanes, which were meant to improve traffic flows in south Snohomish and northeast King counties. Instead, they moved some of the worst congestion from Kirkland to Bothell. And even though state data showed time savings southbound, the general lanes turned slower in the Bothell chokepoint — and 29,000 people endorsed an online petition to repeal the toll lanes.
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Some powerful swing-district lawmakers, notably Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, turned against a toll concept that both parties, including both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, have supported. I-405 became a way to turn widespread traffic frustrations against Inslee, a Democrat.
“The 405 thing was a big trigger. If that project didn’t go as poorly as it has, we may not have seen what happened Friday,” said Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, who has joined Hill in resisting the toll program this year.
Even after the complaints were rolling in, some lawmakers said they saw Peterson as indifferent.
House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said tolling wasn’t the core issue.
“If there was any doubt remaining, it should be clear now — hard-line, D.C.-style gridlock has arrived in our Washington,” she posted Friday night.
“I think this has nothing to do with Lynn Peterson,” Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, said Saturday. “I think this is all about Gov. Inslee. I think she is a scapegoat.”
Hill, who could not be reached for comment Saturday, made tolls the theme of his speech against Peterson on the Senate floor. “As my teenagers would say, it was an epic fail. And what is frustrating is when you talk to DOT, everything is great,” he said.
He said it’s debatable whether the toll lanes which allow solo drivers to buy a quicker trip for prices as high as $10, were a good idea. “But my biggest concern, I’ve been consistent on this, was the implementation. It’s been abysmal.”
Hill was among several Republicans in a 36-13 majority who voted in 2011 to allow express toll lanes in the Bellevue-Lynnwood corridor.
A thankless job?
In some ways, the ouster is the ultimate example of the state’s reputation for passive-aggressive behavior: Wait for three years, write a bipartisan, $16 billion transportation package, then sack the secretary after a sudden floor debate.
Peterson had even been endorsed for confirmation in the Senate Transportation Committee, in a unanimous voice vote last June.
Given the toxic political climate, Liias predicted the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) could end up with a caretaker transportation director until after this fall’s gubernatorial election.
Peterson’s successor ought to have a track record of delivering megaprojects, said former WSDOT Secretary Doug MacDonald — who said in 2013 that Peterson, with a background in transit planning and sustainability, lacked the right experience.
The Seattle tunnel project “needs management skill at WSDOT, which is not in great supply at this point,” MacDonald said Saturday.
Inslee suspended tunneling after a sinkhole formed Jan. 12. The $1.35 billion contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners was signed in 2011, almost two years before Peterson arrived.
As for Highway 520, the initial batch of bridge pontoons cracked months before Peterson arrived from Oregon. Her predecessor at WSDOT, Paula Hammond, found the state was to blame for design errors. The floating section will open for traffic this April.
Democrats say the GOP senators’ three-year wait to fire Peterson — and their refusal to give her a hearing or advance notice — stinks of political gamesmanship.
But her opponents say dissatisfaction has simmered for a few years.
A confirmation vote didn’t happen quickly because the Senate was evenly split and couldn’t forward it to the floor, says Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. Then last year, leaders such as Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Joe Fain, R-Auburn, didn’t want confirmation hearings to get in the way of an agreement on an 11.9-cent gas-tax increase and $16 billion transportation plan, Ericksen said.
But Liias said he’s been in dozens of meetings and hearings where the GOP never grumbled about Peterson’s performance.
On the other hand, after three years, she didn’t build a relationship with a single Republican to speak on her behalf Friday, said Randy Pepple, a GOP strategist.
“The governor never decided he wanted to push her appointment, and she wasn’t doing a good job,” Pepple said.
Friday’s vote could intensify the so-called mode wars.
King, head of the Senate Transportation Committee, and other Republicans have accused Peterson and Inslee of taking their focus off traffic flow and favoring transit, walking and bicycling.
Robert Cruickshank, senior campaign manager for Democracy for America, said Peterson paid plenty of attention to motorists. Reacting to the Senate vote, he called on green-transportation supporters to show up in the suburbs for fall legislative elections.
The transportation plan includes about $9 billion for road construction and $1.3 billion for maintenance. These include Interstate 5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Highway 167 connecting Tacoma to warehouses and foothill suburbs.
“She gave them much of what they wanted, then they turn around and fire her,” Cruickshank said. “WSDOT’s been responsive to the suburbs to the point where Seattle liberals are not very happy.”
As for transit, Peterson secured state dollars to keep funding extra bus service for West Seattle, Burien and the Aurora corridor, to provide extra capacity during Highway 99 reconstruction. But the state constitution directs gas taxes to state and local roads, limiting WSDOT involvement in transit.
Lawmakers, with Peterson’s support, did agree to let urban Sound Transit voters boost their own taxes this November, to finance longer rail networks.
But the cooperation between parties unraveled with the toll rollout, which Hill described as a nonstop complaint in his district.
The state’s I-405 data indicate tollpayers and buses are saving up to 14 minutes in the morning, while general traffic saves time in the morning southbound but is delayed in the evening going north through Bothell.
A litany of other problems has created ill will: diversion into Kenmore or downtown Seattle from Highway 520 tolls; steep $40 civil penalties for late payments, eventually eased in a forgiveness program last year; customers put on hold a half-hour when calling for assistance; the loss of free access for two-person carpools.
“For the most part,” said Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, “these are not issues created by an administrator. These are issues that were put in place by us or by our predecessors in the Legislature.”
Lawmakers of both parties chose not to supply an extra $300 million to $500 million to build a Bothell direct-access interchange and toll lanes to Lynnwood, to smooth the kinks out.
Liias said WSDOT has listened to commuters and is adjusting I-405 to provide easier lane changes to enter the express lanes. He said Peterson’s latest budget called for promptly seeking a new contractor to operate the toll-collection system.
Pepple said toll controversies might affect scattered legislative races in areas such as the 1st District in Bothell and the 44th in Snohomish. But he thinks a more fundamental debate is under way: “The governor’s focus on carbon, low-carbon fuel standards and transit, versus the Republican [Senate] majority [saying] we’re more about congestion relief and moving goods and services.”