Transportation secretary fails to win Senate confirmation, loses job

A majority of the state Senate voted today against confirming the state transportation secretary appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee. The decision means Lynn Peterson is out as head of the state Department of Transportation after three years.

“This is about having accountability at the highest levels in state agencies. Secretary Peterson’s inability to properly manage the DOT after three years has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. She has undermined any confidence the people had in transportation projects and simply can’t be trusted to manage the additional transportation funding approved last year,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Appointments by the governor are subject to confirmation by the state Senate. While an appointee may serve indefinitely without being confirmed, a vote against confirmation means the appointee may no longer serve. The Senate majority chose not to confirm Peterson’s appointment; the 21 Democrats present from the Senate minority voted in support of Inslee’s pick, in spite of a long list of problems during Peterson’s watch.

Peterson’s three years as transportation secretary have seen one DOT failure after another. Recent examples include the shutdown Seattle tunnel project that is anticipating over $200 million in claims and cost overruns, and the ineffective Interstate-405 high-occupancy toll lanes that have made traffic congestion worse instead of better.

Her ouster by the Senate comes less than a year after legislators passed the largest transportation package in Washington’s history, which allocates about $16 billion for road maintenance and construction, among other investments. Speaking before today’s vote, members of the Senate majority pointed not only to DOT’s recent management failures but their growing doubt about Peterson’s ability to oversee the new projects they had approved.

“Reforms that would ensure accountability for our state’s taxpayers were first and foremost when we passed the transportation package in 2015. Sadly, the implementation of the package has not met our expectations – and Secretary Peterson didn’t seem interested in enacting the reforms,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The responsibility for confirming gubernatorial appointments is one of the few ways the Senate can provide oversight of state government’s executive branch, Schoesler explained.

“We routinely approve the governor’s appointments – in fact, the Senate confirmed two of Governor Inslee’s agency heads today. A vote against confirmation is a rare occurrence, just like our recent vote to issue subpoenas in the felon-release scandal. But enough is enough when it comes to mismanagement at state agencies, and if the governor drags his feet, our majority is ready to provide leadership,” Schoesler said.

A pattern of mismanagement has emerged during Peterson’s time as transportation secretary, including:

  • Failure to properly supervise the Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) administration of Minority Owned Business Contracting, resulting in a call by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for Peterson’s firing.
  • Poisoning the working relationship between STP and her now-former agency by issuing a politically-driven letter of default.
  • Inslee’s recent order to halt STP’s work on the downtown Seattle tunnel due to a giant sinkhole – the latest public-safety concern in a project plagued by water damage that independent experts say threatens the historic structures of downtown Seattle.
  • Alcohol consumption at the job site by contractor employees working on the State Route 520 bridge replacement project.
  • Her approval of a controversial change order on the SR 520 bridge project that cost taxpayers millions of dollars in part due to a poorly constructed state contract.
  • The collapse of the Skagit River Bridge, damaged because the DOT was still permitting loads that exceeded the bridge’s capacity.
  • DOT’s continued failure to verify routes for oversize load limits, which could cause another bridge collapse.
  • Repeated concerns about Washington State Ferries, including:
    • the loss of two ferries to mechanical failures during one week this past summer.
    • nearly 240 canceled ferry trips since 2013 due to staff shortages or miscommunication.
    • the overloading of a Bremerton ferry in 2014 that forced almost 1,700 passengers to disembark.
    • the 2014 discovery that a sex offender had worked for years on the ferries despite multiple complaints from passengers against him.
    • Peterson’s settling of a sexual-harassment suit against WSF for $500,000.