WSDOT needs an overhaul

Trouble has been brewing at the Department of Transportation for some time now, and that means trouble for all of us in Washington State. As one of our most important state agencies, WSDOT plays a critical role and has a major impact on our state’s economy and on our own daily lives. We all need this agency to function well.

Instead, there are many troubling signs that all is not well at WSDOT. A few examples:

–          The state expects to pay about $170 million for change orders to the 520 bridge replacement project, mostly for flawed pontoons. Large cracks appeared in the first pontoons that were produced, and the problem’s source was determined to be WSDOT’s own engineering work. (That’s not the only trouble with the 520 bridge, of course, since the Seattle side of the project is not yet funded. Funding isn’t WSDOT’s job, however, it’s the Legislature’s).

–          Bertha, the tunnel boring machine that’s supposed to be chewing through dirt and rock for the crucial Highway 99 Viaduct replacement project in Seattle, will be sitting idle for an estimated 16 months while attempts are made to repair it. A legal battle seems likely between WSDOT and the contractor over who will pay for cost overruns, with WSDOT’s position weakened – undermined, you might say — by the inconvenient fact that the agency may have known about the buried pipe that Bertha appears to have run into, because WSDOT itself may have left it there following test drilling.

–          The state ferry system seems to be a never-ending mess. Relations with the ferry workers union have been problematic for years, and KING 5’s excellent 2010 series, Waste on the Water, exposed a culture that allowed for unjustified overtime, dubious paid travel time, employees staying on the payroll despite cheating on timecards, canceled sailings, and many other problems. Inexplicably, people at the bargaining table with the taxpayers’ interests in mind were removed. Gov. Gregoire instituted some important reforms, but much more remains to be done.

–          The State Auditor’s Office recently completed an audit on contracts for the now-dead Columbia River Crossing project in Vancouver. The audit’s scope was limited to contracts, but auditors found that WSDOT shelled out $17 million in questionable spending, much of it for various contracts in which the work wasn’t substantiated. While most of these disbursements were likely legitimate, it’s troubling that oversight was so lax. Even more troubling, WSDOT agreed to pay a 4% premium for subcontracted work to the project’s main contractor, even though that isn’t specified in the contract. WSDOT is pushing back on the Bertha contractor; why not in this case?

We know WSDOT can do better and it absolutely needs to do better. The agency’s speedy reaction to the I-5 Skagit River bridge collapse, and its swift work to replace the fallen span, was WSDOT’s finest hour of late. The episode showed that in tough circumstances, the agency can respond effectively.

While no one expects perfection, mistakes are piling up at WSDOT. The agency has shown it can perform well in a crisis, but taxpayers need it to perform well on its planned projects too.

This critical agency needs a reset. A few questions for its leadership to ponder:

–          Are lean management processes actually reshaping the agency in ways that are positively affecting critical decision-making and project execution?

–          Do contracts for high-risk projects like Seattle’s tunnel project include the right mix of incentives and disincentives?

–          Does WSDOT have a handle on the ferry system to taxpayers’ – and ferry riders’ – satisfaction? Sometimes it hasn’t been sufficiently clear who is in charge there, WSDOT or its unions.

–          Are contracts and financial controls as tight as they need to be to protect taxpayers from unpleasant surprises?

I’ve said many times, on this blog and elsewhere, that a new round of transportation investments is needed for our economic health. Some projects, such as completing SR 167 to the Port of Tacoma, are hugely important for our state’s economy and for improving regional mobility. If they are to approve those investments, voters must see and believe in improvements to WSDOT itself so they will have more confidence that state projects will be completed on time and on budget. Leaders at WSDOT should start with some internal reflection on how to reform their agency so that public trust and confidence will be restored.
-Rob McKenna

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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.