Even in politically heterogeneous Washington, one issue can bring people to agreement like no other: transportation. Democrat, Republican, or independent. Rural, suburban or urban. Employee, employer or stay-at-home mom. Everyone is affected by their own ability – or lack thereof – to move from place to place.
Randomly strike up a conversation in Yakima, Vancouver or Seattle about the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel project – “Bertha” – and universal eye-rolling and molar-grinding will ensue.
In the crescent of ‘burbs and burgs east of Lake Washington, from Everett to Auburn, mentioning Interstate 405 tolling will elicit a similarly sour response.
Mentioning ferries among island-dwellers now qualifies as a micro-aggression.
Problems of mismanagement and waste within the ferry system are heirloom-grade dysfunctions in the culture within the State Department of Transportation. Other more general road and bridge-related issues stemming from departmental priorities which are seriously out of step with the reality are more recent additions to a growing collection of grievances the public has with the agency.
Over decades, the changing cast of characters in the Legislature and the governor’s mansion have gripped opposite sides of a tug-of-war rope on transportation, one side pulling hard for reform and the other pushing back to maintain the status quo.
More than a decade of Democratic dominance over the state House has provided the time necessary to put the right people in charge of the right committees, a firebreak of Machiavellian brilliance in its construction, manned by representatives whose own political fate is insulated from the fires that rage around them. There’s no better example of that stalemate than the decision by state Rep. Judy Clibborn’s (D-Mercer Island) refusal to hold a vote on a bill to remove tolling on one lane on the north section of I-405. (Taxpayers had been told that an increase in gas taxes would be used to create the additional lane for general purpose use.)
In theory, voters can break through Clibborn’s obstruction (beyond which exist the failsafe options of a blockade by Speaker of the House Frank Chopp and a veto from Gov. Jay Inslee) at the ballot box. Ultimately, Inslee appoints the director of the Department of Transportation who sets the tone inside the agency; Inslee could be voted on if voters chose to make the election a mandate on transportation policy.
But in the real world, the temperature of anger on single issues rarely rises to a level in state politics needed to cook an individual elected official on Election Day. It’s a problem of diffused accountability.
It’s true, the governor does appoint the head of WSDOT, but the matter of direct accountability is less clear. After all, the governor is responsible for managing a range of things and promoting a broader agenda. It makes the decision to reject a governor on the basis of transportation policy a bit like declining an invite to a Super Bowl party based only on the quality of the chili being served. Because transportation is something that affects everyone, it is a matter best decided on an à la carte basis.
Voters deserve to have a more direct path of accountability when it comes to the government’s involvement in their daily lives.
The time has come to make WSDOT accountable to the people, by allowing the people to choose its top official. Such a change would shift the agency’s relationship to taxpayers and create a mechanism through elections to align our transportation system with the needs of Washingtonians.
Let’s not kid ourselves – it won’t be easy. The state constitution would need to be amended and that begins in the Legislature. Would Republicans be willing to make the promise to voters that they would pass the necessary legislation if voters gave them control of both legislative bodies? If they did campaign on such a promise – one element of a contract with Washingtonians – it would send a clear message that their party stands for direct accountability to the public on matters that affect our daily lives.