There has been a lot of discussion in Olympia recently about the proposed gas tax. At the Freedom Foundation, we have discussed this issue before. Anyone who has ever experienced driving in Seattle or around the Puget Sound could probably identify a few places where the road system could use some work and improvement. Maybe there are places for a new lane, fix potholes, or even a new bridge. However, let’s take a look at exactly where those tax dollars would go, and just how well our own Department of Transportation (WSDOT) “manages” the money provided by the taxpayers.
I wrote a post a few months ago asking why we can’t seem to build bridges in Washington State. Since this article was written, more has been exposed about the unfolding bridge disasters.
- The 520 saga just continues to be an embarrassment of amateur design and project management. At one time, before I was born, we could build pontoons that didn’t sink. Apparently, it now appears that the 1960s were a golden era in both manufacturing and design for bridges.
- The Columbia River Crossing nightmare project continues to define itself as the poster child of ineptitude at almost every step of the way. It wasn’t enough that the WSDOT (and their contractors – hard to draw the line between the two since they are so intertwined) can’t get a design for the CRC bridge for $160 million that is the correct height. Yes, you read that correctly. $160 million into the DOT project design black hole and the final design is at least 10ft. too low for 13 ships which currently cross under the existing bridge.
- At a forum on February 25 at Skyview High School, a panel presentation by forensic accountant Tiffany Couch discussed approximately $20 million which vanished in the CRC project. Neither DOT nor the CRC people can explain where it went. The money was there. There are journal entries. On what was it spent? Nobody knows.
- The CRC project requires the involvement of two states (and the Federal Government), and the Washington tax booster crew was highlighting Oregon’s recent passage of a $450 million tax package as an example for Olympia. However, they should read this recent expose about the corruption on the Oregon side of the CRC debacle. This story isn’t getting better and it is likely that we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg.
I don’t intend to just talk about the unfolding incompetence at WSDOT in managing our tax dollars on bridge projects, but to be fair, we should also talk about the waterfront Viaduct tunnel project. This tunnel project was largely sold via a cartoon animation marketing plan both for doomsday scenarios with the historic viaduct here and how great the new design would be here. Now Seattle gets its own Big Dig project. Most people agree that the problems with the old viaduct needed to be addressed. The challenge is letting WSDOT manage this project without resulting in total failure or massive cost overruns.
The Freedom Foundation has been a long-time critic of the incompetence of WSDOT with our state ferry system. As predicted many years ago, WSDOT is living up to the low expectations every observer has of their ability to design, build, and manage the ferry system. The recent revelation that the ferry Chetzemoka cost Washington State taxpayers $83.6 million, or about $50 million more than what a Massachusetts ferry operator paid for a similar boat with a comparable design three years before helped highlight the problems at WSDOT once again. As Senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) asked in a recent hearing in Olympia “How much extra do taxpayers have to pay? Is 40 percent too much? Is 35 percent too much?”
To partially answer Senator Ericksen’s question, Joe Cortright, who is the President and Principal Economist with Impressa research indicated at the CRC Facts Forum earlier this week – we will pay somewhere between 30%-200% over budget. If past performance is any indication of future experience - WSDOT’s track record supports this prediction.
Everyone should be concerned about the egregious and substantial incompetence displayed by WSDOT with almost every major (and even many minor) projects they touch. We can all agree that there are major problems and challenges that must be resolved with our infrastructure and transportation needs in Washington. However, cleaning house at WSDOT may be a good first step to fixing these problems instead of ensuring they only get worse.