Why Inslee should retain the transportation secretary
by Larry Ehl
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.
Under Hammond’s leadership WSDOT has become a national leader in performance measures and transparency (efforts started under her predecessor Doug MacDonald). WSDOT was regularly if quietly consulted on those issues (and environmental stewardship) by Congressional committee staff during the drafting of the newest federal transportation bill. Again you can read more on WSDOT's website.
What about accountability? Hammond’s WSDOT has saved $56 million in the last four years from reducing administrative and overhead expenditures, delivered 81% of projects on time and budget, and reduced staff by 7.4%. It’s a strong record, marred by issues with the ferry system, the SR 520 and CRC projects, and a few other missteps. But what large public or private organization doesn’t have missteps? Ever heard of the Zune? The 787? Just as the companies of those products continue to succeed and perform at a high level, so does WSDOT.
The Seattle Transit Blog suggests a new WSDOT leader in the mold of New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. She is transforming that city by creating separated bike paths, pedestrian plazas, and select bus service. A recent report indicates retail sales are up along those corridors.
But Sadik-Khan would find it impossible to replicate that success as WSDOT Secretary. She would not have the luxury of focusing nearly exclusively on expanding the bike-ped network and green-lighting buses at stoplights. The job requires overseeing a statewide road and bridge network on which Washington’s trade-dependent businesses rely. Then there’s a divided legislature to deal with, half or more who support less focus on climate change, bike-pedestrian and transit issues. And oh, there’s that ferry system which demands a little attention.
A new Secretary might talk a better game on transit and bike-ped issues, excite those interest groups, maybe convert a few legislators. But actually delivering more significant changes in direction and policy is largely dependent on the new legislature and Governor.
And it’s hard to deliver enough change to satisfy everyone. Ask Mayor McGinn who, despite all he’s done for bike-ped facilities and the resulting withering criticism he’s taken from the freight movement community, is criticized by a number of bike-ped stakeholders for doing too little.
It’s good to have people impatient with addressing these issues. Just as it’s good to have people impatient with improving the highway system on which so many of our businesses (and, um, transit agencies) depend. But that impatience should perhaps be directed at the governor, legislature and voters to craft and approve additional transportation funding – accompanied by additional reforms and expanded accountability and transparency – to increase economic vitality and transportation options, and to improve the livability of our communities.
WSDOT is neither unfriendly to or a slacker on climate change, bike-pedestrian and transit issues. Here’s hoping Governor-elect Inslee and his transition team look carefully at WSDOT’s actions and record as they look for their change-agents.
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