Where is the leadership on transportation?

If you listen to the press releases and sober-minded sound bites coming out of Olympia, you would conclude that everyone in the state capitol wants to find consensus on a transportation package that will move our state forward. It’s clear, though, that to many in the state capitol, the November elections are much more important than getting started on critical projects are state needs.

That’s unfortunate, because we know our future economic health depends on improving our infrastructure and finishing some critical projects. We’ve all heard about the top projects – finishing SR 167 to the Port of Tacoma, a north-south freeway corridor in Spokane, completing 520’s transformation from I-5 to the bridge, and others – but we need leaders, in government and the private sector, making the case for why these projects are necessary to grow our economy.

Several factors are holding back progress on a transportation package.

1)     Unfortunate mistakes and management issues are eroding trust in the state Department of Transportation
The tunnel digging project in Seattle has been beset by problems (even before the now-stalled Bertha machine started boring), the 520 replacement has flawed pontoons and had on-the-job alcohol problems with contractors, and the ferries system continues to be plagued by management issues and labor problems. Put together, these stories are eroding public trust in the department and making people question how their gas tax dollars are being spent.

2)     The Governor is absent from the process
It’s just about impossible to advance a major transportation package without strong leadership from the governor to get it done. Instead, the last five-corner transportation negotiation between the governor and caucus leaders from both houses was over two months ago, in mid-December. Since then, little has come out of the governor’s office than expressions of hope that a package will come together. It’s going to take more than hope to make it happen, it’s going to take leadership by the governor.

3)     Election year politics means people want to be seen as working toward a package while doing nothing to make it happen
Too many in Olympia are giving fake support so they can blame somebody else for the failure later. More immutable than the tides is the fact that politicians are much more hesitant to take a tax vote in an election year.

People in Olympia are doing a careful dance, making sure they’re not seen as impediments to transportation improvements while subtly sabotaging efforts to pass a package. This was displayed most vividly a few weeks ago when legislative Democrats rushed to a hastily-called press conference about the latest Republican proposal. They had little to say about specifics because they hadn’t read the proposal yet, but they still went ahead with the press conference. Not being seen as roadblocks to a deal was more important to them than actually reading the proposal and responding to its specifics.

Maybe it’s just reality that a transportation package is just too difficult to pass in an election year. Already there is talk of coming back after the November elections, when next year’s Senate majority will be known, and passing a package when the political consequences are muted. It’s unfortunate that this is the prevailing view in Olympia now. Whether it’s now or in December, a package isn’t going to come together without more leadership from the top. Mr. Governor, Mr. Speaker, will you step up?

The following two tabs change content below.
Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.