WSDOT Reform

The recent history of Washington State’s Department of Transportation management of projects is a poor one. Far too much taxpayer money has been wasted. It’s time to reform WSDOT before we entrust them with managing new large scale projects.

WA_constitution_Article_1_Section_1Consider the following track record.

  • The Columbia River Crossing (CRC) contract with David Evans and Associates was a “$50 million maximum” contract. WSDOT agreed to several 2-page amendments to the contract that resulted in over $199 million taxpayer funds being spend. This included an initial flawed bridge design with just 95 feet of clearance for river traffic. This was redesigned to 116 feet, which resulted in three upriver firms being promised $85 million in “mitigation” funds, due to the low bridge height.
  • The 520 “floating bridge” in the Seattle area has WSDOT designed pontoons that do not float. State taxpayers are now on the hook for $400 million in repair costs to fix WSDOT’s flawed design and oversight.
  • The Highway 99 aqueduct tunnel project being drilled by “Big Bertha” is now stalled. Initially, the drill hit a 119 foot well casing left by a subcontractor who did exploratory drilling on behalf of WSDOT. The damaged Big Bertha drill has been stalled since December and was not repaired until December 2015. One Jan. 2014 news story reported: “Bertha’s daily utilization since being launched has been a crushingly low 25 percent thru January 27, 2014. That means 75 percent of the 182 project days since launch have been days where zero forward progress has been made.”  In late April (2014) the WSDOT Secretary said there “is a chance” the tunnel might NEVER be completed. This delay is costing taxpayers millions of dollars. This level of poor “management” by WSDOT is unacceptable.

Then just a few weeks after resuming it’s drilling, (Jan 2016) Bertha caused a sinkhole to develop. Gov. Jay Inslee has now suspended drilling.

Former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi discusses the latest aspect of this totally mismanaged $4.2 billion Seattle project on Seattle radio KTTH. Bertha officials ‘couldn’t organize a kegger in a brewery’  Take a listen!

Commuters burned by I-405 toll lanes

Recently, after taxpayers had paid for the addition of one a new, additional lane to improve traffic congestion on I-405 in the Seattle area, WSDOT used the new lane as a second HOV lane. They began tolling which at peak times rose to $10, creating a traffic nightmare in the “general purpose” lanes. One result was the state Senate refusing to confirm the nomination of WSDOT’s Lynn Peterson in Feb. 2016.

One Puget Sound news report:

“While traffic improved in the express lanes, the study found commute times in general lanes worsened – increasing by several hours for some drivers.”

A recent report revealed:

the state collected more than $3.7 million from express toll lanes since the September opening – three times more than expected.

State Republicans cited frustrations with the project – along with the Highway 99 tunnel project – last week when the state Legislature abruptly fired Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson. Gov. Jay Inslee condemned state Republican senators for the surprise vote to reject Peterson’s confirmation.”

“It shouldn’t come as any surprise to WSDOT that the data mirrored the frustrating experience drivers are having,” Sen. Andy Hill, a Redmond Republican and the prime sponsor of the Senate bill, said of the study. “Then add to it the fact that the state is taking in millions of dollars more from those who resigned themselves to pay to escape traffic backups and you have taxpayers who don’t feel their interests are a priority of their state government.”

From this King 5 news report:

At Kirkland-based INRIX, CEO Bryan Mistele says if WSDOT’s goal was to reduce congestion along Interstate 405, they failed.

He says the problem is the express toll lanes added last year between Lynnwood and Bellevue. The state called the tolls, which have an adjustable rate based on traffic, a critical step to reduce congestion.

“For people in the general purpose lanes, we made things far worse. We added about 20-25 minutes on average drive time up the corridor,” said Mistele.

In an 8-page preliminary assessment, INRIX compared dates from October 2014, before the tolls, and October 2015, once tolls were in place. The research found extended congestion along I-405 for about eight hours in the morning and about three hours in the afternoon commute.

Seattle traffic is so bad commuters spend an extra 66 hours a year in their cars

From a March 2016 Puget Sound Business Journal news story:

Kirkland traffic data company Inrix on Tuesday released its annual Urban Mobility Scorecard. In a list dominated by top technology hubs, Seattle ranked near the top in total time commuters waste in traffic. The average Seattle commuter wastes 66 hours annually behind the wheel – up from 63 hours in 2014.

Seattle is No. 6 on the list. Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Houston and New York rounded out the top five.

The Puget Sound region is a leader in a lot of areas, Microsoft President Brad Smith said during the Challenge Seattle press conference Monday, but transportation is not among them. The area has eight of the country’s most congested corridors, including Interstate 5 and Interstate 405.

There are more examples of WSDOT mismanagement, including bad tolling estimates on the Tacoma Narrows bridge, and Highway 167’s bad design where it connected to I-5 near Tacoma. Bottom line – an undeniably poor track record mandates a performance audit and then significant reform of WSDOT.

From a May 2014 column by Rob McKenna:

  • “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.”

— “Since the original Waste on the Water series, new issues involving staffing arose in the summer of 2012. KING found dozens of sailings delayed or cancelled because of employee no-shows. The ferry system was forced to look into a possible work slow down by union employees. Soon after, the Coast Guard issued a new mandate that would require WA State Ferries to increase the number of staff on some of the boats. The state says that new requirement will be financially devastating and would erase any savings brought about by the cost-cutting measures implemented because of KING’s investigative series.” KING 5, Seattle.

We have lived the poor track record of WSDOT management of the CRC. Washington taxpayers spent $94.1 million (of the over $199 million spent) on that $50 million “maximum” contract. Consider what “could” have been done to benefit our SW Washington community with that $94.1 million. Below is a list of the top ELEVEN transportation projects from Clark County. The list is a 6-year series of projects. These 11 projects could have been paid for IN FULL with the $94.1 million that WSDOT wasted on the failed and flawed CRC.


The Washington State Auditor recently released his audit of the Columbia River Crossing, and WSDOT’s management of it. There are some amazing and sad findings for taxpayers. From the auditors report:

“We found amendments to two task orders worth $2.3 million were signed after the work had been delivered, as well as instances of poor control over task orders.”

“We were also told that WSDOT had been agreeing to high (labor) rate increases for years. The Consultant Services Office indicated staff would bring high increases to the attention of executive management, but they were always told to approve them.”

“WSDOT also lacks records to show the overhead, labor and profit rates charged by more than 30 CRC primary consultants and sub-consultants. These firms were paid a total of $12.3 million.”

Furthermore, the auditor show that WSDOT paid David Evans & Associates unusually high profit mark ups 17.9% to 21.6%.

Please note that the state auditor’s office did not count the $19 million forensic auditor Tiffany Couch at Acuity Forensics found “unallocated” in her private investigation. The Washington State Auditor found $17 million of “excess” or “questionable” costs. Total potential waste/fraud = $36 million of YOUR money.

Click here for the full report >


Total overall expenditures for the I-5 bridge replacement project processed as of March 31, 2014:  $199,499,108.

    • Oregon: Spent about $12.2 million of state money and $90.4 million of federal money
    • Washington: Spent about $48 million of state money and $46.1 million of federal money

Source: Oregon Department of Transportation

Note that Washington spent four times as much local taxpayer money than Oregon ($48 million versus $12 million). Why did we spend so much of our state’s taxpayer’s money compared to Oregon? How did Oregon get so much Federal money for the project, compared to Washington? Recall that all this was under WSDOT’s management.

Note the “Cash Cow” graphic from the Oregonian story is totally appropriate.
Cash Cow



State Senator Steve O’Ban introduced a common sense amendment asking for transparency within WSDOT. His bill requires them to report to the legislature when costly mistakes or design errors are initially discovered by the agency. Senator Curtis King on WSDOT reform:

“The state can’t win public support for a multibillion-dollar transportation package without first establishing that we are serious about fixing the waste, mismanagement and abuse that exists within the system.”

We need to end the sales tax on transportation construction materials. This takes transportation dollars and moves them into the state’s general fund where they are then spent on non-transportation items.

The Senate majority coalition also wants to shift the funding of storm water runoff projects from gas-tax revenue to a state Ecology Department-related hazardous substances tax.


House Bill 2123 did not get passed by the House in the 2014 session. We need to try this again.

From the Washington Policy Center:

Traffic relief is the most basic goal of any transportation policy. It is the role of government to build safe roads with enough capacity to help people get where they need to go. Yet traffic relief is not a policy priority for transportation officials in Washington state. Until 2007, the state set specific performance benchmarks for improving vehicle flows on urban highways to reduce travel times and to improve the mobility of citizens.

However, those benchmarks were replaced by six policy goals, only one of which is identified as “mobility.” Normally “mobility” would mean traffic relief, but state officials define mobility as a strategy to move people no matter how slowly, rather than speed up traffic flows. This means state officials have shifted their spending priorities away from actually fixing traffic congestion to trying to provide alternatives to congestion. As a result, it is much harder for citizens to move around our state.

We need to get back to common sense in spending transportation dollars. “Congestion relief” for cars and freight should be part of our state’s transportation policy.

Watch this 6 minute story, told by retired State Auditor Brian Sonntag, about “entrenched, elected bureaucrats” who stifle the will of the people, and who did NOT want a performance audit of WS DOT. (Thanks to Lew Waters for this video footage of December’s Clark County Republican’s Christmas Party & Brian’s presentation.)