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In Political Coup, Republican-Led Senate Ousts Transportation Chief

Republicans listed other problems with transportation in the state since Peterson took the job: Tolling on 520 across Lake Washington, Bertha, the enormous boring tunnel in Seattle that has failed to move forward, and ferries breaking down.
Associated Press Pool Photo/Joshua Trujillo/
Lynn Peterson, Washington state's transportation chief, was fired on Friday afternoon after Republicans convened a last-minute confirmation hearing.

A coup went down in Olympia this afternoon.

Surprising Democrats, Republican lawmakers called for a confirmation vote for Lynn Peterson, Secretary of Transportation for Washington state. In a party line vote of 25 to 21, they fired her.

This struck Democrats as odd because 1) Peterson was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee three years ago, and 2) this is a Friday afternoon, when most lawmakers are trying to get home for the weekend.

“We should have known something was up when Senate Republicans decided to work on a Friday,” Sen. Cyrus Habib tweeted.

Republican Sen. Andy Hill said he likes Lynn Peterson, but says that Washington State Department of Transportation is a “problem” agency.

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Referring to the I-405 toll lanes that many motorists say have worsened an already tough commute, Hill quoted his children calling it “an epic fail.”

“I have no confidence that the agency is in a position to fix the problems they have without a change at the top,” Hill said.

Republicans listed other problems with transportation in the state since Peterson took the job: Tolling on 520 across Lake Washington, ferries breaking down, collapse of the Skagit River Bridge and Bertha, the enormous boring tunnel in Seattle that has failed to move forward. One Republican also said her agency has encouraged African-American contractors. 

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This appears to be the first time since 1998 that the Senate has rejected any gubernatorial appointment. 

In a series of floor speeches, Republicans called Peterson a nice person, but said she's not up to the job of managing the agency at it begins to implement a 16-year, $16 billion transportation package approved by the legislature last year. 

"Being nice ain't enough, you have to be capable," said state Senator Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

In a tweet, Baumgartner wrote, "Note to other Inslee appointees: Shape up, do your job. Serve the people w accountability. Or more heads are going to roll." 

Minority Democrats quickly came to the defense of Peterson calling the vote not to confirm a "Friday afternoon surprise."

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An effort Friday afternoon to delay the vote failed, which meant the vote would go forward.

Democratic Sen. Steve Hobbs said he hoped this wasn’t “dirty politics.” And other Democrats said this was election-year politics.

Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon said the last time a gubernatorial appointment wasn’t confirmed was in 1998. But he said this is business and not personal. 

Democrats praised Peterson for her handling of the Skagit River bridge collapse and rapid rebuild in 2013 and her response to the Oso landslide in 2014 which took out a section of Hwy 530 and cut off access to the town of Darrington.  

"It is shameful that this body would consider not confirming such an incredible and tireless champion for mobility and for public safety in Washington state," said Senator Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. 

In a statement a spokesperson for Inslee called the vote "a blatant misuse of the confirmation process for political purposes."

Inslee recruited Peterson from Oregon where she served as a transportation policy advisor to former Governor John Kitzhaber.  

In an email, Republicans listed their grievances in detail: 

  • Failure to properly supervise the Seattle Tunnel Partners (which oversees Bertha) administration of Minority Owned Business Contracting, resulting in a call by the NAACP for Peterson’s firing.
  • Alcohol consumption at the job site by contractor employees working on the State Route 520 bridge replacement project.
  • Her approval of a controversial change order on the SR 520 bridge project that cost taxpayers millions of dollars in part due to a poorly constructed state contract.
  • The collapse of the Skagit River Bridge, damaged because the DOT was still permitting loads that exceeded the bridge’s capacity.
  • DOT’s continued failure to verify routes for oversize load limits, which could cause another bridge collapse.
  • Repeated concerns about Washington State Ferries, including:
  1. The loss of two ferries to mechanical failures during one week this past summer.
  2. Nearly 240 canceled ferry trips since 2013 due to staff shortages or miscommunication.
  3. The overloading of a Bremerton ferry in 2014 that forced almost 1,700 passengers to disembark.
  4. The 2014 discovery that a sex offender had worked for years on the ferries despite multiple complaints from passengers against him.
  5. Peterson’s settling of a sexual-harassment suit against WSF for $500,000.
Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."