Senate transportation co-chair raises questions about WSDOT pick for mega-project review leader

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, today expressed his concern about the state Department of Transportation’s choice of a former WSDOT administrator and project director to review three of the state’s transportation mega-projects. Newly-appointed Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson announced Thursday that Ron Paananen, now a private consultant, will lead a comprehensive assessment of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement, the State Route 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program, and the Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing projects.

“I have no doubt that Mr. Paananen is technically qualified to lead the review of these three, multibillion-dollar projects; that’s not the issue here,” King said. “What troubles me is the fact that Mr. Paananen was a former administrator on two of these projects and his private employer receives millions in consulting fees from DOT, including current payouts of $2.4 million on the Columbia River Crossing – one of the projects to be reviewed. This is obviously an enormous conflict of interest.”

Paananen left WSDOT in October 2011 to join CH2M Hill, a private design, design-build, operations, and program-management consulting firm. He was formerly the Alaskan Way Viaduct program manager and has worked on the SR 520 bridge replacement project.

“The governor has made statements to the effect that he wants to bring ‘disruptive change’ to the Washington State Department of Transportation,” King noted, “but I don’t see how this changes anything. The fact is that we are potentially out millions of dollars due to serious mistakes made with the 520 bridge project and I don’t think hiring a consultant who has been part of these troubled projects to provide an ‘independent’ assessment is the right solution. DOT needs to bring in a truly independent analyst to not only impartially identify where improvements can be made but also instill a modicum of trust among taxpayers that the state transportation department isn’t wasting their money. I just don’t see how DOT can expect to receive an impartial review based upon Mr. Paananen’s involvement in these projects.”

King isn’t alone in questioning Peterson’s choice of Paananen to review the projects. Several other lawmakers have also voiced their concern over the perceived conflict of interest and have called for the transportation secretary to make another choice.