By Josh Feit, January 31, 2013, Publicola
With lawmakers in Olympia getting ready to start working on a transportation package of as much as $10 billion and with brand-new Gov. Jay Inslee apparently all-in on tying new transportation infrastructure to his economic recovery plan, it’s odd that Inslee hasn’t named his pick to head the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) yet.
Inslee staff had been vetting current WSDOT Executive Director Paula Hammond for the position earlier this month PubliCola hears, but evidently the process has slowed down.
Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith tells PubliCola that an announcement isn’t coming in the immediate future, and a member of the transition team tells us it was “not one of the fast-tracked positions.”
WSDOT spokesperson Ryan Bianchi wouldn’t say whether or not Hammond was applying for the job, saying simply: “The governor makes appointments to secretary positions. You can contact the governor’s office.”
Transit and environmental groups haven’t been thrilled about Hammond because they feel she’s hasn’t always taken 21st-century environmental goals seriously, including mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (transportation produces the vast majority of Washington state’s carbon emissions) and aspirational legislative goals, such as the idea that transportation infrastucture is for moving goods and people, not just cars. For example, transit advocates have had no luck getting WSDOT to direct tolling revenue to transit and transit mitigation.
Environmental Priorities Coalition spokesman Cliff Traisman said, “WSDOT needs to take it to the next level,” though he added that his group had not taken a position on any individual candidate for the WSDOT postion, including Hammond. “We need a very forward-thinking director to match very forward-thinking new governor.”
Traisman says transit policymakers need to understand that “the nexus between roads and stormwater runoff is stark,” and says transit needs to be the state’s top focus.
The rap in favor of Hammond is that while she isn’t a big-picture innovator, she is an excellent bureaucrat with a Marine-like focus on delivering projects on time and on budget. (She also has reputation for conforming to her boss’s agenda—meh on transit under Gov. Chris Gregoire, but potentially bullish under a green like Inslee.)
Hammond’s supposed strength as a top-notch fiscal steward may backfire, though.
With legislators starting to get a look at the cost estimates for big-ticket items in the new transportation package, such as the tunnel and the new 520 bridge, it’s not clear that Hammond’s reputation as pennywise will be accurate. As we’ve reported many times now, there are big questions about miscalculations in WSDOT’s tolling revenue estimates for the tunnel. House transportation committee chair Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-41, Mercer Island) does point out that the unfunded expenses on 520 have gone down from $2 billion to $1.4 billion, though.
Will Hammond’s supposed strength turn out to be a weakness? Or will environmentalists’ desire for a green champion disqualify her for the position under a new, green governor?
Here’s what Inslee, prioritizing “creativity” and “rethinking” current models, had to say about transportation in his inaugural address earlier this month:
No economic strategy would be complete without a transportation plan that facilitates … growth. … In the next 10 years, our population will grow by approximately three-quareters of a million people, but we will not be adding one more square inch of dirt.
To honestly address our infrastructure, we have to recognize that creativity is as important as concrete. I want us to turn our innovative spirit toward crafting a transportation package that includes roads, trains, light rail, buses, bike routes and other modes of transportation. We need ways to … rethink how we do the business of transportation in our state and how we use our transportation infrastructure.
“The only way to shift away from everyone sitting in their cars by themselves,” Kathleen Ridihalgh, Senior Regional Organizing Manager for the Sierra Club says, and then, with a shout out to Inslee’s speech, “is to have major—’disruptive?’—investments in alternatives that are safe, easy and convenient to use. The Governor has signaled these changes are in his agenda, and we hope for a leader in WashDOT who will take that charge and run with it.”