Not that they were asked, but consultants hired to evaluate the work of the Washington State Transportation Commission, essentially concluded in a draft report that many of its responsibilities could be transferred to the state Department of Transportation or other agencies, raising the question of whether the commission should continue at all.
When the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee receives the final report in December, lawmakers need to carefully consider the future of the state’s best connection to citizen input on what should happen with our roads, bridges, ferries and more.
Shifting much of its work to other agencies is likely to further limit the public’s input into transportation planning and policy at a time when that input is most important, especially on how residents and businesses fund the transporation infrastructure on which we all rely.
The state Transportation Commission is a seven-member panel of citizens, each appointed by the governor, and joined by one representative each from the governor’s office and the state Department of Transportation. The committee is responsible, through its communication and outreach to state residents, for setting statewide transporation planning and policy for the Department of Transportation’s implementation; setting tolls for highways and bridges and fares for Washington State Ferries; and offering policy guidance to the governor and Legislature.
But aside from its authority to set tolls and ferry fares, the report by Morningside Research and Consulting of Texas, recommends ending the commission’s responsibility for those tasks.
As reported earlier this month by The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield, Morningside wasn’t tasked with weighing in on whether the commission should continue or not. But their recommendations inevitably led to the unofficial conclusion to “abolish this agency and move the functions elsewhere,” a Gateway partner said during a public hearing to release the draft report.
The problems, as Gateway outlined in its report, include overlap and duplication on policy and planning, community engagement and special studies and projects between the Transportation Commission and the state Department of Transportation.
It isn’t that the Transportation Commission does a poor job of outreach to state residents; the report notes that the commission offers a “welcoming venue” for comment from local governments and the public and does better at that level of connection than does the Department of Transportation. But at the same time, its work is not receiving significant attention from policy makers in the Legislature, nor cooperation from the Department of Transportation.
The limitation of its voice, in particular with lawmakers, stretches back to 2005, when the Legislature removed the commission’s authority to appoint the state transportation secretary and made the Department of Transportation a cabinet agency under the governor.
That move, however, has left the transportation department open to political maneuvering, such as when Senate Republicans ousted Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson in 2016, a position she had held for three year as she waited for Senate confirmation. Republican senators were hard-pressed to voice a particular problem with Peterson and appeared more motivated by election-year politics.
The report’s findings do offer a needed review of what works and doesn’t work for the commission. And re-evaluating the role and responsibilities of the commission is worth an examination, but not if the recommendation risks removing a clear path of communication between state residents, the government and its transportation agency.
Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, has come to the commission’s defense.
“The commission is a heck of a lot better at listening to the citizens,” Hayes told The Herald, adding that the Department of Transportation, in his view, is less interested in advice from the community.
If there are communication problems among the Transportation Commission, the Department of Transportation and state government’s legislative and executive branches, removing the authority of the commission — as well as the state’s most direct link to the public — might result in some efficiency and cost-savings but could come at the loss of direct input from the public and local governments.
Where there are problems, provide the Transportation Commission the resources and authority it needs to do its job. Don’t put it on a dead-end road.