Look out for fish

Lynn Peterson, the new head of the Washington state Department of Transportation was one of the first agency heads appointed by incoming Governor Jay Inslee took the oath of office in Olympia a year ago. The State’s transportation system needed reform and now, Inslee said. Peterson, a highway engineer, had been the Sustainable Communities and Transportation Advisor to Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber.  But while she is somewhat new to our state, it is clear she knows what is ahead. Beyond cost overruns on the new SR-520 bridge, the outrage over tolling, ferry problems and Big Bertha stuck in the mud along the Seattle waterfront, Peterson must also ensure that roads and bridges are safe and functional across the state. It is a case of extreme need versus dwindling resources.  While the agency awaits a vote on cranking up the gas tax, it continues to explore other ways of raising money.

Yet, if that isn’t enough,  Peterson told Sound Publishing staff at our Eastside HQ last week, a big issue affecting all of these goals is a court decision handed down last year to protect fish.

Peterson compared it to the Supreme Court’s McCleary Decision that says the state of Washington must fully fund education. In what is known as the Culvert Decision, lawmakers must find more than $2 billion in the next dozen years or so to repair or replace culverts that harm fish. A lawsuit brought  by 21 Indian tribes claimed that culverts in streams and waterways on state roads are impeding salmon from reaching spawning grounds. The impact on salmon runs violates treaties that protect tribal fishing rights. The state is already hurrying to repair key points where fish encounter roads. But there are hundreds if not thousands of culverts to be repaired.  It is just one more mega-project competing for state tax dollars.

Something has got to give. The no-nonsense Peterson was hired in part to ‘disrupt’ business as usual at the state transportation agency.  Her first task was to put together a plan entitled, ‘Performance and Accountability through Reforms.’  Such reforms will focus on a leaner approach to improve performance.  Savings will be applied to the work at hand, Peterson said.


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