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Time to Fix WSDOT

Menzel TOM

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If Gov. Jay Inslee wants “lean management” to be a hallmark of his administration, the Transportation Department should be Exhibit 1.

It appears that we have a nasty case of engineers gone wild – and Inslee isn’t one bit happy about it. After months of media scrutiny, outgoing Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond finally revealed this week that engineers in her department blew it – big time. The pontoons for the new Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington are cracked and leaking, and the $4.1-billion project is likely to be delayed at least a year. Ouch!

Heads could roll when Inslee determines who’s to blame for what will likely be more than a $100 million fix – that’s right, now let’s see that number with all eight zeros: $100,000,000! This revelation hits the news at a time when our schools need an extra $1 billion, our state parks are on their hands and knees begging for every dollar they can get and lawmakers are considering a possible gas tax increase to fund yet more transportation projects.

Hammond blames the pontoon debacle on design errors by state engineers who she says did not follow “standards of good practice” and failed to run models that would have shown the problem. She also implied in an interview last week that someone, somewhere was pushing too hard: “Everybody wants you to take risks, until something goes wrong.” As top dog at the agency (for about one more week), she apparently doesn’t know where the buck stops.

Wherever the fault lies in this case, we can only hope WSDOT will clean up its act once Inslee’s newly appointed Transportation Secretary-straight-from-Oregon, Lynn Peterson, takes over next month. Inslee says she’s ready to do just that, and we wish her luck.

Former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s appointment of Hammond to head up WSDOT in August 2007 made me nervous from the start. An organization that large embarking on the most extensive capital improvement program in its history needed strong leadership, preferably someone from the outside with a wide range of management experience, tons of discipline and lots of new ideas. Hammond was hired as an engineer at WSDOT straight out of college in 1979 and rose up through the ranks. But putting an insider in charge of people she worked with for 28 years just didn’t make sense.

This latest misstep by WSDOT is just one of many in recent years, some of which predate Hammond’s five years at the helm.

Here’s a shortlist:

– On Feb. 7, WSDOT lost a public records showdown with Seattle’s KOMO 4-TV, which has relentlessly investigated the 520 bridge issues for several months. A King County Superior Court judge ruled that unredacted versions of documents related to the pontoon problems had to be released to KOMO and the public (kudos to KOMO and three cheers for open government). These documents were posted on WSDOT’s website Feb. 21. They’re not a pretty sight.

– In 2004, before Hammond’s stint as secretary, WSDOT had to abandon a massive pontoon construction site in Port Angeles when crews unearthed an Indian village and cemetery containing several hundred burials and artifacts. The site was being prepared for construction of replacement pontoons for another megaproject, the $470 million Hood Canal floating bridge. WSDOT paid less than $7,000 to an archaeologist who reported “no evidence of significant prehistoric or historic archaeological resources.” The result: About $80 million of public money up in smoke, and the pontoons had to be built elsewhere.

– In 2010 WDOT discovered a new highway off-ramp in Tacoma was built in the wrong place when it was nearly 90 percent complete. A design team working on the eastbound lanes of the new ramp added a third lane of traffic without informing the second team that was designing the westbound lanes. Oops, another $1 million down the drain. Hammond told the Tacoma News Tribune at the time: “This obviously is something we have not done right.” Ya think?

– In 2011, technical problems with the new tolling system for the Highway 520 bridge delayed startup for about eight months, costing the state millions in lost revenue intended for future highway projects. The contractor shouldered most of the blame for this one, but who selected them?

– Ongoing problems continue to plague the state’s iconic ferry system, ranging from declining ridership and bloated costs for new boats to a $300,000 fix for tilting ferries (more on this topic coming soon).

But enough of past problems. It’s now time for Inslee and his team to implement his promise of lean management. And one of the quickest ways to do that is to clean house at Transportation. He has begun
the purge from the top, which is a good sign. Next, he needs to find a new ferry director. Then he needs to take a close look at the rest of the 7,000-employee agency, where something just ain’t right.

Tom Menzel, of Hansville, Washington, is a communications consultant, community volunteer and former newspaper editor.

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