Last week, the Washington State Senate refused to confirm Lynn Peterson as state Secretary of Transportation, effectively firing her three years after she was nominated to the job by Governor Jay Inslee (and during which she served in the job). In effect, the Senate turned her down after a three-year interview period.
Peterson was a curious choice for the job as she was an Oregonian who had been a Clackamas County Commissioner. Her background also included working as a transportation planner for Portland’s Metro, transit planner for TriMet, and an advocate for 1000 Friends of Oregon. Given that resume, she clearly supports the “build-it-and-they-will-come” ideals of light rail and conversely, don’t-build-it-and-they-won’t-come opposition to highways. Just as Washington imported its 1990 land-use law from Oregon’s 1973 law, it made sense to import an anti-highway, pro-high-cost transit planner from Oregon to run Washington’s transportation department.
Of course, it only made sense if you believe those ideas, but from any realistic view they are nonsense. Portland and Seattle both suffer from housing affordability crises born out of the inane “density-reduces-driving” myth. Their ever-more-expensive light-rail and streetcar lines combined with subsidies to transit-oriented developments are bankrupting the cities. Failing to build new roads hasn’t led people to drive less; instead, traffic congestion (measured by hours of delay per commuter) has more than tripled in Portland and more than doubled in Seattle since 1982.
Seattle has spent billions trying to catch up to Portland by building light rail and commuter trains, but according to the 2014 American Community Survey, a mere 0.7 percent of Seattle-area commuters take rail transit to work. (In Portland the figure is 2 percent.)
Ironically, some believe it was a highway that triggered the Senate’s rejection of Peterson. The State Department of Transportation installed toll lanes on Interstate 405, and while they relieved congestion in some places, drivers perceived that the congestion was merely moved to a choke point at the south end of the toll lanes. What that should argue for extensions of the toll lanes, many people were simply opposed to tolls.
In fact, I suspect that Republican senators had more than this one project in mind when voting on Peterson’s confirmation. While they haven’t been able to explain it well, the real problem is that Peterson and the department she inherited share an anti-auto attitude that ignores the actual travel preferences of the vast majority of Washingtonians. It will take more than another Democratic-governor appointee to fix the department, but it’s a start.
Peterson’s acting replacement is both a civil engineer and a planner. Like Peterson, he’s a carpetbagger whose family still lives in Billings, Montana. Probably the first qualification for whoever the governor nominates to be the next transportation secretary should be that they are a native Washingtonian who has seen just how badly the state’s transportation policies have failed.