Incoming Wash. State DOT Secretary Lynn Peterson hasn’t even seen her new office, and she’s already facing unfair expectations from both ends of the spectrum.
The bike-ped/climate change view
At one end of the spectrum are some environmental and bicycle advocates, who are understandably excited about Peterson. One respected blogger wrote “Peterson is very unlikely to support highway expansion over transit. She’s been a supporter of rail over road expansion in the past. [She’s] carefully critical of the Columbia River Crossing project, with really solid comments that show clear support for light rail and pedestrian connections, and little support for highway growth.”
Other stakeholders told me they anticipate a retreat on megaprojects, a greatly reduced focus on highways, and a lot more spending on transit and bike-ped projects.
There’s only one problem with those expectations: Lynn Peterson cannot deliver them, nor could any WSDOT Secretary. The position simply doesn’t have that much discretionary power. And WSDOT is primarily a roads agency – unlike USDOT – and doesn’t have that many transit and bike-ped programs.
WSDOT identifies and recommends which projects to advance, but over the last decade or so the Legislature has selected nearly all of the projects. Sure, WSDOT could stop recommending certain highway projects in the future, but the Legislature will have the final say in collaboration with the Governor. Of course the Governor plays an important role, and can alter WSDOT’s focus and future projects.
Still, the WSDOT Secretary can have an impact – just look at what Ray LaHood has done at USDOT. Arguably, he’s changed the culture and focus of USDOT to be more transit and bike-ped friendly. He, along with other Cabinet Secretaries, used administrative discretion to create and fund cross-cutting community improvement and livability programs. But at the end of the day, LaHood also supported highway projects. In fact LaHood blogged about such a project this week, and was criticized for it by some in the green/active transportation community.
This reminds me of the situation Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn finds himself in. A Sierra Club activist, he was the candidate of choice for the bicycle community, who worked overtime to elect him. His administration has accomplished enough in bike facilities to infuriate most of the freight and business community. Yet the accomplishments are too few for many bike activists, who now oppose McGinn’s reelection. Their disappointment is a byproduct of misunderstanding just how much McGinn – or any Mayor – could accomplish.
Advocates for more investment in transit and bike-ped programs and projects, and reduced focus on road projects, have every right to be excited and optimistic about, and have high expectations for, Peterson. And she’ll need every bit of their concerted, long-term support to transform WSDOT. Peterson can be more successful if stakeholders have realistic metrics for transformation and don’t abandon her because she didn’t reach the unrealistic metrics.
The highway industry view
At the other end of the spectrum are some highway interests, who are practically apoplectic about Peterson. “No real management experience.…no experience with project delivery….obviously will spend all her time getting bike paths built….…doesn’t understand importance of highways to economic vitality….knows nothing about ferries….will probably cancel lots of road projects” are some of the comments I’ve heard in the past few weeks from folks who understandably wouldn’t go on the record.
As explained earlier the WSDOT Secretary doesn’t have the power, on her own, to cancel large highway projects. She could recommend cancelling or delaying certain highway projects, for a variety of reasons including wanting to channel those funds to bike-ped programs. Decisions would be made in collaboration with the Legislature and the Governor.
Some concerns are valid. Even a few Democratic legislators quietly express concern about Peterson’s lack of any medium to large scale management experience, and the lack of project delivery oversight. Peterson is unfamiliar with the politics of the state and has no relationships to speak of with legislators and stakeholders (with the notable exception of her experience with the I-5 Columbia River Crossing project, and the I-5 West Coast Green Highway in initiative). Some might argue that it is a plus to start relationships with legislators from scratch, and have no preconceived notions about the state’s politics.
But all of those issues can be overcome, particularly if Peterson can put together a crack executive team. Retaining Chief of Staff Steve Reinmuth to help her navigate internal and external politics would be a good step in that direction. (Disclosure: I once worked for Reinmuth.) And Peterson is obviously smart, and persuasive, and has a vision that meshes with Governor Inslee’s.
So let’s take a breath and give Peterson a chance before writing her off and setting her up for failure. It’s in the interest of all transportation stakeholders for her to succeed.
Peterson’s confirmation is close to a sure bet, though it may be a rocky road getting there. More on that tomorrow.