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News / Clark County News

Wagner’s four-decade transportation career ends

WSDOT regional administrator retires; resume includes work with ODOT, CRC

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter
Published: May 23, 2015, 5:00pm
2 Photos
Don Wagner in his office in Vancouver.
Don Wagner in his office in Vancouver. The longtime transportation administrator retired Friday. Photo Gallery

When Don Wagner began his transportation career in 1973, he worked as a “rear chainman” with the Oregon Department of Transportation.

He described the job this way:

“I replaced a lock on the dumb end of a tape measure,” Wagner said this week. “Somebody said, ‘Here, hold the dumb end of this tape here, and I’m going to go out there and measure something important.’ “

He added: “The expectation was fairly low.”

Wagner chuckles now about the assignment, which turned out to be the humble start of a long career. Wagner spent 24 years with ODOT before joining the Washington State Department of Transportation as Southwest regional administrator in 1997.

He also spent a brief stint as co-director of the ill-fated Columbia River Crossing, stepping into a “political hornet’s nest” during the project’s later stages.

Wagner, 63, is now retiring after a transportation career spanning 42 years and two states. He’s moving with his wife to Hawaii — where there’s not a single interstate bridge. (Though there are, oddly, interstate freeways.)

His last day in the office was Friday.

“When you’ve had a long career, you’re kind of used to what’s normal — getting up every morning, thinking about what’s happening, planning the day out,” Wagner said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time to get used to (not doing) that.”

Building boom

During his time with WSDOT, Wagner oversaw something of a building boom in Southwest Washington. A pair of gas-tax packages in 2003 and 2005 steered $850 million in projects to the region, he said. Most of that investment occurred in Clark County.

The project list includes some major efforts. Among them are the Salmon Creek Interchange Project, an expansion of state Highway 14 in Camas and Washougal, a new interchange at state Highway 500 and St. Johns Boulevard, and upgrades along the Interstate 205 corridor. Wagner also shepherded the completion of the Southeast 192nd Avenue connection at Highway 14 and other projects crucial to the area’s development, said Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman.

“If you look at what he has delivered here … the amount of progress that he’s helped foster here is staggering,” said Burkman, who worked as a regional planning manager for WSDOT in 2007 and 2008.

Wagner’s ability to work with a wide range of perspectives in politically difficult environments is a big reason for his success, Burkman said. Wagner also balanced technical expertise with a skill in building partnerships, said Matt Ransom, executive director of the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council.

“He’s just a consummate professional,” Ransom said. “When he speaks, people listen.”

CRC co-director

With all of the achievements of his career, Wagner can also point to a few disappointments. He considers one of those to be the Columbia River Crossing, the canceled megaproject that would have replaced the Interstate 5 Bridge and brought light rail to Vancouver.

Wagner took over as co-director of the CRC in early 2010. By that time, much of the technical work had been done, and the effort had moved more into the political realm.

The $3 billion CRC earned the support of every jurisdiction that had a formal stake in the project. That’s no small accomplishment given the often disparate political interests on both sides of the Columbia River, Wagner said. But by then it also had a host of citizen detractors.

“It was a huge success,” he said. “The problem was we didn’t bring the public along to have that same understanding of the project.”

The CRC lost significant momentum in early 2011 when leaders scrapped the design of the bridge, following the recommendation of an expert review panel that called it unnecessarily costly and complex.

Wagner stepped away from his role in the CRC project office in the spring of 2011, returning to his regular WSDOT duties. The project began to unravel in 2012 and 2013 amid other missteps, heightened scrutiny and new elected leaders who were hostile toward it.

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The CRC was shut down for good last year.

“I believe what was the ultimate demise of the project was the length of time it took,” Wagner said.

As he prepares for retirement, Wagner said he plans to relax and take on some charity work. A send-off event for Wagner was planned before he heads to Hawaii.

Wagner’s four-decade career has seen dramatic changes in both vehicle and infrastructure technology. New projects have altered the regional landscape. But he cites at least one constant during that time.

“What hasn’t changed, in my opinion, is the quality of the people that work for the DOTs,” he said. “Whether you’re in Oregon or Washington, they’re very dedicated people.”

Wagner’s career gradually took him north as he took on regional leadership positions in Roseburg, Salem and Portland in Oregon, then Vancouver.

“Now I’m going to go west,” he said.

Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter