State’s new transportation secretary could be named this week

OLYMPIA — The state Senate is gearing up to confirm a new transportation secretary one year after its Republican majority fired the last one.

A vote could be held as soon as this week on Roger Millar, who took the agency’s reins after the GOP ousted Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson in a display of raw political power.

Millar’s confirmation has received the backing of the Senate Transportation Committee, and the Rules Committee agreed Tuesday to advance it to the floor for a vote.

“I hope to make him one of the first (appointments) we confirm this year,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said Tuesday morning.

Democratic senators are wary. Peterson, one of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s first appointees, also had her confirmation supported by the transportation panel. Then, on Feb. 5, 2016, 24 Republicans and one Democrat voted to not confirm her, citing concerns with her management of several projects, including the I-405 express toll lanes and a new tunnel in Seattle.

“I just want to make sure that this time if there are concerns, we know what they are,” said state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, assistant ranking minority member of the transportation committee. “I just want assurances that we’re not going to get the bait-and-switch we got last year.”

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said he was told Peterson would be confirmed, then she wasn’t. Following that tense vote he called her ouster a “political execution” and attributed it to Republicans trying to embarrass Inslee in an election year.

“Our leadership is talking to their leadership to make sure what happened last year doesn’t happen this year,” he said. “I hope we do confirm him as soon as we can.”

Millar, a 57-year-old civil engineer, joined the Washington State Department of Transportation as deputy secretary in October 2015. He became acting secretary following Peterson’s ouster and Inslee appointed him to the job Aug. 9.

In his confirmation hearing, Millar said his father worked as a civil engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers and that he remembers watching him build bridges in Frankfurt, Germany, and later serve as project engineer on the widening of the Panama Canal.

Millar’s own career has taken him from jobs with the cities of Portland, Oregon, McCall, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana. He worked for a multinational planning firm in Virginia and served as vice president of Smart Growth America, a national nonprofit transportation planning organization, before joining Washington’s transportation department.

While the process of his confirmation is unfolding much like Peterson’s, the dynamics appear to be different.

One reason is Millar appears to have constructed sturdier relationships with Republican lawmakers than his predecessor.

“I like his attitude. He has a how-can-we-get-to-yes approach,” Schoesler said.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, praised Millar’s willingness to collaborate with lawmakers and stakeholders.

“I am more than pleased to move this appointment forward,” he said.

Another difference is that Inslee and his staff stayed in contact with House and Senate leaders on the performance of Millar and other appointees in the months before the 2017 session.

“It was a very cooperative process with the governor and that process should be rewarded with confirmation as soon as we can,” Schoesler said.

A spokeswoman for Inslee said the governor “appreciates” the committee’s support of Millar. She also stressed the governor and his staff didn’t lobby for his confirmation in those conversations.

“These have occasionally included discussion about appointments — both in regards to Cabinet appointments and the hundreds of board and commission appointments our office oversees,” said Tara Lee, deputy director of communications for Inslee. “However, we have not lobbied members specifically on Roger Millar or other individuals awaiting confirmation.”

Meanwhile, Peterson didn’t stay unemployed long. In April 2016, Smart Growth America hired her as a senior transportation policy adviser.

And in June she received the Nohad A. Toulan Urban Pioneer Award for Public Service from Portland State University. The award honors community leaders for their public service, civic leadership, insight into the nature of local and regional urban problems and visionary responses to urban issues. Peterson is a former county and state leader in Oregon.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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