The state Senate fired Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson on Friday by refusing to confirm her — some three years after she was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee.
OLYMPIA — In a show of political muscle, Republican state senators Friday fired Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson by refusing to confirm her — some three years after her appointment by Gov. Jay Inslee.
The 21-25 vote, which caught Senate Democrats and the governor’s office by surprise, broke along party lines. Democrats voted to confirm Peterson, while Republicans and one Democrat who caucuses with the GOP voted to remove her.
It immediately ended Peterson’s tenure, and raised questions about how much lawmakers will be able to cooperate for the rest of the session.
During a debate that lasted about two hours, Republican senators blasted the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), citing frustrations with Interstate 405 toll lanes, problems with the ferry system and delays in the Highway 99 tunnel project.
“I have no confidence that the agency is in a position to fix the problems they have without a change at the top,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, chief GOP budget writer. Hill said he is hearing constantly from motorists in his district frustrated by tolls of up to $10 and persistent slowdowns on I-405.
Democrats praised Peterson for her rapid, personal response to the Oso mudslide and Skagit River bridge collapse, along with improved customer service under the ferry director she appointed, Lynne Griffith.
Several accused Senate Republicans of having political motives during an election year.
“Why did you have to fire someone without notice on a Friday without any cause?” Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said after the vote.
Inslee’s office called the move “shameful.”
“Today’s vote by Senate Republicans is a blatant misuse of the confirmation process for political purposes,” said Jaime Smith, Inslee’s spokeswoman. “Republicans’ actions today do nothing to engender confidence about their ability to focus on the important priorities facing legislators this session.”
Peterson did not respond to requests for comment.
The last rejection of a gubernatorial appointee was in 1998, when the Senate removed former U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld from the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.
In a statement after Friday’s vote, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said Peterson’s three years have seen one failure after another.
He cited the Highway 99 project in Seattle, where contractors are seeking more than $200 million in state payment for cost overruns, most related to a two-year delay in tunnel drilling.
Schoesler also said I-405 toll lanes have made traffic congestion worse. The data as of January show increased delays at the northbound bottleneck in Bothell where total lanes decrease, but time savings in the morning, especially for transit buses heading south to Bellevue.
GOP lawmakers discussed Peterson’s confirmation in a caucus meeting before the vote, Schoesler said Friday night, but have been frustrated for years about issues surrounding WSDOT.
During the debate, state Sen. Don Benton, R-Clark County, called Peterson a “lovely person” but then accused her of launching backdoor talks with Oregon officials to revive the canceled Columbia River Crossing on I-5. Benton opposed light rail on the proposed new bridge — and kept the project out of last year’s huge transportation package.
Lawmakers in both parties hurled accusations during and after the vote.
In a statement, Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, described the vote as “aim and fire, at an utterly unsuspecting and innocent victim.”
After the debate, Schoesler called Peterson a “racist” while showing reporters a letter by the Washington state Civil Rights Coalition that criticized the secretary’s record on minority-owned business participation in state and federal transportation programs. Later, Schoesler apologized for his words. “I regret my remark in the heat of the scrum at the press table,” he said.
Before being hired by Inslee, Peterson oversaw transportation and energy policy for former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, chaired the Clackamas County Commission and was strategic-planning manager for Portland’s Tri-Met transit agency. She has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin and two master’s degrees from Portland State University.
Even while floor debate raged Friday, the mayors of Darrington and Mukilteo sent messages to their lawmakers imploring them to defend Peterson.
Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson praised her collaboration on a planned ferry terminal rebuild, as well as Peterson’s passion for leaner, “practical design” of roads, which could bring about reduced speeds, fewer lanes and pedestrian improvements.
“She didn’t want to be just a traffic engineer that plunked down a road and built a highway through our community,” Gregerson said in an interview. “She wanted to work with us.”
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, was accused by Democrats of flip-flopping. King had told Peterson in committee last year: “I want to thank you for the job you have done over the past two and half years, and I can’t say thank you enough to the staff that you have behind you.”
King says his view shifted last fall when WSDOT staffers sounded blasé about complaints during the I-405 toll startup. “It’s like, ‘We’re handling things really well, things are going fine,’ yet there are signatures from 22,000 people saying this is garbage,” he said in a phone interview while driving home via White Pass.
He also said Peterson is making it too cheap for Sound Transit to acquire right of way along state roads.
“She’s very partial to transit, very partial to bike and pedestrian paths, all those things,” King said. “We need to protect the citizens that want to travel on our roads. That’s why we’re there. We need to protect the ability of people to use our roads, use their cars. From the get-go, she was about moving people on transit, moving people on light rail.”
Seattle-area urbanists said as much on social media. They said Peterson’s firing proves the state won’t defend bus rapid transit on highways, making Sound Transit’s light-rail expansion more necessary than ever.
Friday’s dispute comes as lawmakers are being held in contempt by the state Supreme Court for failing to adequately fund basic education. Lawmakers have struggled to come up with a way to satisfy the court.
“We need to get out of here with a plan to fund education, and this happens,” Hobbs said. “So it’s a little bit of a distraction. I hope that we can put this past us.”