Some of Governor-elect Jay Inslee’s allies want him to replace state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond with someone who will do more on climate change, bicycle-pedestrian and transit issues. The Seattle Transit Blog has openly called for new leadership, and several environmental groups are privately advocating for new leadership.
These three transportation issues are important for many communities across the state, but particularly Washington’s larger cities. More and more people want alternatives to driving -- for health, financial, or environmental reasons. I don’t begrudge advocates who are impatient for more progress on climate change, bike-pedestrian and transit issues.
But those people are using unrealistic metrics to measure Hammond and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The state transportation department operates within legislative, regulatory and political limitations enacted formally or informally by the legislature, governor, and transportation stakeholders of various stripes. It’s not a system in which bold, disruptive initiatives can be achieved.
Yet Hammond has led WSDOT to impressive achievements in climate change, bike-pedestrian and transit issues. In fact compared to her counterparts around the country, and to most other Washington State agency directors, Hammond has been the disruptive change agent that Governor-elect Inslee wants to attract. You may not realize it, because Hammond isn’t a headline-seeking leader, and much of her work is the day-to-day bureaucratic infighting and policy development that doesn’t translate to news stories. Here are just a few examples:
Transit: Hammond has fought for adding light rail on the I-90 floating bridge and the I-5 bridge in Vancouver. Her personal advocacy on passenger rail resulted in significant federal funding for service upgrades and expansion. WSDOT’s collaboration with King County Metro on SR 99 is producing thousands of additional hours of transit service. The agency’s follow-through on completing the central Puget Sound HOV network is paying big dividends for transit. WSDOT’s work in Commute Trip Reduction and vanpools is among national leaders.
Bike-pedestrian: Hammond fully participated in creating the state’s first "bike-ped" plan. Unlike some state plans which are mostly pretty pictures and aspirational words, WSDOT’s plan was action-oriented and included specific projects and goals. Earlier this year WSDOT recommended against diverting federal bike-ped funds which could have been flexed to road projects. The League of American Bicyclists ranked Washington as the #1 Bicycle Friendly State in 2012 and in 2011, stating that “Washington is the model for all other states on utilizing federal funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects.”
Climate change: Six years ago the agency won a national award from the Center for Environmental Excellence for “Best Organizational Integration of Context Sensitive Design.” More recently The National Association of Environmental Professionals recognized WSDOT for detailing greenhouse gas estimates, energy use, and climate change effects of the proposed I-5 Columbia River Crossing project - work that exceeded minimum federal requirements. The agency was the first DOT in the nation to produce a Climate Impacts Vulnerability Assessment report to help others understand the possible risks to infrastructure. You read about it on WSDOT's website.
I could go on.
For WSDOT, this work is as much about ensuring the public gets a good return on its gas tax by designing and building transportation facilities that will last longer, have a reduced impact on the environment, and withstand the increasing number of 100-year storms so that communities and businesses can continue to function.
What dismays some transportation stakeholders is that Hammond also advocates for roads and spends too little time talking about bicycling and transit. They also accuse WSDOT of focusing too much on road expansion, and of lukewarm support for including bike-ped facilities in those projects.
The truth is that Hammond focuses WSDOT on road maintenance, preservation and safety projects, and on only a handful of road expansion projects which are critical to maintaining and growing the state’s economy. For better or worse (and many would say worse), highway expansion has not been the number one priority. And Hammond's actions simply mirror the direction given WSDOT by the Governor and Legislature.
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