The Washington Senate ousted state Dept. of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson on Feb. 5—the first rejection of a gubernatorial appointee in the state since 1998.
The surprise move came in a 25-21 vote against confirming the 2013 appointment of Peterson. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee had strong words against the move, both in a statement on Friday and during a press conference on Monday, when he called the Senate Republicans “out of control at this moment.”
Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R- Spokane) has remained outspoken against the oversight of the department, citing a list of reasons for the vote, including cost overruns, project delays and what he calls “management failures.”
“This is a time of crisis for our transportation system, and Secretary Peterson has shown she does not have the capability to manage it,” he said in a statement. “Gov. Inslee has treated his many secretary appointees as spoils of a campaign victory, choosing unqualified and incapable leaders of our state’s critical agencies.”
WSDOT’s reputation has been tarnished as a result of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement fiasco, a tunnel-boring project approved by voters in 2011 but now scheduled to open nearly three years late and already more than $200 million over budget. Work on the project ceased last month, “suspended for cause” by Inslee.
Baumgartner also points to the botched initial pontoon design for the Highway 520 floating bridge, a design that required, in 2012, an emergency on-lake fix for a bridge that has been brought back on track and is now set to open this spring. The recent “disastrous rollout of the I-405 toll lanes” was added as fuel to the fire.
The toll lanes, intended to relieve congestion in sections of Snohomish and King counties, transferred congestion to a section between Bothell and Kirkland.
“With major projects and investments at stake, we can no longer stand for the level of incompetence we’ve seen from our transportation management,” Baumgartner says.
Inslee calls it all political maneuvering, saying that, when he met with Republican leaders last week, they raised not a word of concern. “This was obviously a gross misuse of the confirmation process,” he says. “Not one single Republican senator at any time has come to me and suggested we need new leadership at the department of transportation.”
Inslee cited Peterson’s strong record in emergency situations, such as the Oso landslide in 2014 and the collapse of the Skagit River bridge on I-5 in 2013.
Appointees serve if the Senate takes no action to confirm, which it hadn’t in February 2013, when Peterson came to WSDOT following a stint as the transportation policy adviser for the Oregon governor. The vote on Friday immediately ended her run and places Deputy Secretary Roger Millar at the helm.
WSDOT has announced no timeline for Peterson’s replacement. An agency spokesperson referred all inquiries to the governor’s office.