A surprise move by Senate Republicans to oust state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson serves as an embarrassing example of dysfunctional government.
“I had always believed our politics here in Washington could be somewhat different from the politics we see in Congress, and I have to tell you, that is no longer the case,” said Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who voted in favor of Peterson’s confirmation. Or, as House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said: “If there was any doubt remaining, it should be clear now — hard-line, D.C.-style gridlock has arrived in our Washington.”
That was the fallout of a 25-21 party-line vote to not confirm Peterson, who has been on the job since 2012. The move was a surprise, considering that no notification of the vote had been provided, and considering that Peterson had been endorsed for confirmation last year by a unanimous voice vote in the Senate Transportation Committee. All of that left local Republican senators grasping for reasons they chose to oust the head of the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“Our WSDOT continued to work with the Department of Transportation in Oregon, encouraging them and helping them do an Oregon-led CRC project,” said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, referring to the defunct Columbia River Crossing. “When we tell the government to stop doing something, then by golly, we expect them to stop it.” And Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said: “This is not about Lynn Peterson; she’s a nice lady. But I have often found nice ladies don’t often succeed in big business. You need someone who has had their boots on the ground, in terms of engineering.”
Benton’s assessment plays off his tired trope of beating the dead horse that is the CRC. Rivers’ statement ignores the fact that Peterson has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering and worked as a highway design and construction engineer for the state of Wisconsin.
And while the Clark County Republicans were putting forth flimsy reasons for opposing Peterson, legislators from the Puget Sound region seized upon a tolling project on Interstate 405 that has frustrated motorists. As The Seattle Times surmised: “The cardinal sin that Peterson and her department committed was to infuriate suburban motorists.” Reporter Mike Lindblom also wrote: “In some ways, the ouster is the ultimate example of the state’s reputation for passive-aggressive behavior: Wait three years, write a bipartisan, $16 billion transportation package, then sack the secretary after a sudden floor debate.”
Peterson’s department has been beset with problems that have been conspicuously lingering. But it should be noted that the troubled Highway 520 bridge project across Lake Washington was underway when she was hired, as was the problematic Highway 99 tunnel project in Seattle. It also should be noted that in 2011, the Senate voted 36-13 to approve the I-405 plan that is now a point of contention.
While senators might find fault with how Peterson has handled her duties, the manner in which they essentially fired her was unprofessional and damaging to the state. With Washington preparing to offer bonds for other transportation projects, this vote of no confidence in the state’s ability to manage megaprojects sends the wrong message. And with no prior notice given to either Gov. Jay Inslee or to Peterson, the vote was an unseemly and discourteous example of partisan politics. It all adds up to an embarrassment for the state Senate.