New DOT secretary hopes to build trust

Staff writerMarch 25, 2013 

Lynn Peterson’s Nissan Leaf — her fifth electric or hybrid car — hasn’t been down every highway and byway in Washington yet.

In fact, with less than two weeks in office under her belt, Peterson has probably barely learned a Good to Go pass from an Orca card, the North-South Freeway from the Cross-Base Highway.

But the state’s new transportation secretary has to get used to Olympia fast, as state lawmakers decide in the next month or so whether to raise gas taxes by as much as 10 cents while also raising questions about mistakes at the agency she inherited.

“We’re going to work on building trust with the citizens of Washington,” Peterson said in an interview last week. She started by organizing a review of agency decision-making on megaprojects, although her choice of reviewer immediately came under scrutiny.

Peterson is an engineer by training who plays the trombone and owns three dogs. She hails from Oregon, where she worked for the Portland-area public transportation agency and then chaired the suburban Clackamas County Commission before advising Gov. John Kitzhaber on transportation policy.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her last month to take a big leap to the top of a 6,600-employee agency that manages 18,600 miles of highway lanes and the nation’s largest ferry system.

Still an open question is how the state will afford to maintain and expand both systems, along with buses, rail and other means of getting around.

“When you look out, we do have a fiscal cliff,” Peterson said, “and the fiscal cliff is for just the maintenance and preservation of our roads, let alone being able to grow. It is time, in the next 12 months, to actually figure out: How do we provide stable funding for that maintenance and preservation?”

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn has proposed new gas taxes, weight fees and ways for local governments to raise their own taxes and fees. Clibborn said Friday that she has jettisoned other parts of the formerly $10 billion package to build support in the House.

The biggest beneficiary of her plan would be a dual effort to extend state Routes 167 near Tacoma and 509 near SeaTac.

With Peterson’s background in mass transit and in Kitzhaber’s office developing plans for passenger rail and electric-car charging stations, transit advocates saw a potential ally and climate-change foe. Inslee saw someone who could help him reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from their biggest source here, transportation. He cited carbon-dioxide emissions in his announcement of her appointment.

“Everybody knows why the governor picked her,” said Clibborn, a Mercer Island Democrat. “He wants vehicle-miles traveled and he wants green energy and that kind of thing, and that’s fine — but her job will be to run an agency that’s huge.”

No one is talking about passing a vehicle-miles-traveled or miles-driven tax on drivers this year, but state officials are looking into it as a future alternative to the gas tax as drivers use less fuel. Clibborn predicted it’s on track to come to Washington in six to 10 years.

The concept is closer to reality in Oregon, which has done more experimentation, putting meters in cars such as Peterson’s.

The new secretary said Washington should get ready for potential experimentation of its own with a per-mile charge, especially if the federal government hands out money for trying it out. That preparation includes answering questions about drivers’ privacy and who would be in charge of the system, she said.

“We can’t move too fast, because it is a significant change — because transportation has never been treated as a utility,” she told the state Transportation Commission.

Senate Transportation Co-Chairman Curtis King questioned if Peterson’s experience has prepared her for the job, though he said he’s giving her the benefit of the doubt.

“If you look at her résumé, the largest thing that she’s done has been the chair of the county commissioners for Clackamas County,” said King, a Republican from Yakima. “To take it from there to the size and complexity of the State of Washington Department of Transportation? (That) doesn’t mean she isn’t skilled and doesn’t have the ability to do it.”

Clibborn said Peterson can learn to be an administrator but needs to surround herself with a good team.

Peterson said it’s too early to say if key officials would be replaced.

She does have some vacancies to fill. And just a day after taking over, she named Ron Paananen to review how the agency makes decisions and manages risk on three major projects: replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the state Route 520 bridge and the Columbia River Crossing on Interstate 5.

Paananen is a former administrator with the department who now is a program manager for the firm CH2M Hill, which does consulting work for the agency.

His appointment divided lawmakers. Clibborn said she feels better with his expertise being put to work. King also praised his knowledge but questioned handing the review to someone with such close ties to the agency.

“If you want to control the message, you hire somebody you can control,” King said. He said he suggested hiring a second person who would be in charge.

Peterson said Paananen brings “overwhelming” knowledge that is hard to find in someone without ties to the department. But she said after hearing from lawmakers, the agency will find someone from outside to work with him.

jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com

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