As is well documented, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) isn’t a stranger to scandals and embarrassing debacles. In fact, the agency’s many failures secured its position as the most incompetent agency in state government. As reported, the latest in WSDOT’s long list of botches is its failure to bill thousands of toll customers (a whopping 126,000 trips to be exact) over a year-long period.
WSDOT attempted to do damage control by calling the latest incident a “computer error” on the part of contractor Electronic Transaction Consultants. Interestingly enough, the agency only issued its response blaming the contractor after the incident became public. Prior to the news media picking up the story, WSDOT attempted to downplay the “glitch” by simply mailing out bills to impacted customers without any explanation or apology.
The out-of-touch response is expected. After all, WSDOT isn’t known for taking responsibility for its too-numerous-to-count mistakes. And, one can always expect agency officials to try and sweep their many gaffes under the rug.
While WSDOT’s mistreatment of the taxpaying public may be expected, it should never be tolerated. GOP State Senator Andy Hill issued the following statement following news of WSDOT’s latest failure:
“We continue to see a customer-hostile approach from WSDOT and no accountability as the mistakes continue to pile up. In addition to a major mistake, which can happen, WSDOT tried to sweep this under the rug. Even with the Legislature taking a more active role in overseeing WSDOT given continuing problems, we weren’t informed and only found out from a media report, who learned about it from a customer. In fact, if you received a late toll bill because of this mistake it’s impossible to find any information on WSDOT’s own web site explaining why or what to do. You wouldn’t see a successful private company treat users this way. In normal situations the service provider would try to make it right to keep the customer, but WSDOT sees drivers as only a means to collect money, not hard working taxpayers trying to get where they need to go.”
The Legislature’s “more active role in overseeing WSDOT” refers to legislation enacted in 2015 (which Hill sponsored) that forces the agency to, among other changes, improve customer service and outreach to customers with unpaid tolls by notifying them directly via email and phone before civil penalties are charged.
WSDOT failed to abide by the legislation. Instead, as Hill pointed out, the agency prefers to point fingers — a response that leads to an even worse customer experience.
Unfortunately, Democrat lawmakers have made a bad situation worse by resisting most reforms pushed by Republicans. Of course, part of the problem is the reality that Democrats have controlled WSDOT for the past 32 years, with Democrat governors appointing directors ready and willing to push a very specific (and highly partisan) agenda.
Though the problems they have created continue to impact Washingtonians, Democrats have fought Republicans tooth-and-nail against reforms. Democrats—again and again—have responded with hostility toward Republicans’ efforts to improve the agency.
Former Democrat State Senator Tracey Eide—then co-chair of the Transportation Committee—killed WSDOT accountability and transparency reforms for purely political purposes in 2014. Eide actually admitted to preventing the transportation bill from coming to a vote because she needed “leverage” for her own approach, which involved raising taxes to fund new road, transit and pedestrian projects without any WSDOT reforms.
At the time, Eide publically announced, “I get a package, [then] we’ll hear reforms. … It’s the only leverage I have.”
Democrats were equally hostile to reforms during the 2015 legislative session. When Republicans attempted to restrict application of prevailing wage requirements to on-site work for WSDOT projects, Democrats killed the bill.
Despite Democrats’ resistance, Republicans did claim some victories. Republicans convinced Democrats to accept a few key reforms through compromise measures.
The transportation package passed in 2015 changed the way the state uses taxpayers’ hard-earned tax dollars. One reform directs the sales tax paid on transportation projects back into transportation, instead of having it disappear into the state general fund (a key move for efficiency efforts).
During the 2016 legislative session, Democrat leaders continued their obstructionist tendencies and refused to work with Republicans to make substantive changes to WSDOT’s failing I-405 tolling scheme. Though Republicans proposed a fix to the debacle that had enough support to pass the state Legislature, Democrat State Representative Judy Clibborn (chair of the House Transportation committee) refused to allow debate on the bill. She blocked it from moving out of her committee.
Time and time again, Republicans have proposed reforms in order to restore public trust in WSDOT by improving accountability and transparency with necessary reforms. And, time and time again, Democrats have stood against reforms in order to protect their special interest supporters at the expense of taxpayers.
It’s clear that, as long as Democrats continue to hold power in Olympia, WSDOT will continue in its incompetent ways — much to the aggravation of commuters across the state.