The chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee wants a “thorough investigation” into how a nearly $1 million design mistake on the state’s Nalley Valley viaduct project occurred and why her committee was not informed of it.
In an e-mail this week to her fellow Democratic senators, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island also said changes are needed in how highway projects are designed to keep the state Department of Transportation “from undertaking projects that are beyond its staff’s expertise.”
Haugen, whose committee oversees transportation policies and funding in the state, said she will press for changes in the coming legislative session on how the Transportation Department designs highway projects.
The design error involved the roadway leading to an offramp from eastbound state Route 16 to Sprague Avenue in Tacoma. The location of the ramp no longer jived with an earlier redesign for the eastbound Route 16.
Fixing the mistake required tearing up the roadway, making the ramp steeper and lowering parts of the ramp’s retaining walls.
Word of the mistake first came out in media reports June 25. State transportation officials had discovered the error in late 2009.
Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond has said the department did a poor job of telling the public about the mistake and promised a review of what happened.
Haugen told her colleagues that Transportation Department officials did not tell her or her committee about the mistake during the 2010 legislative session or during a briefing of committee staff members a few weeks before the mistake was reported in The News Tribune.
“WSDOT staff was asked directly (by committee staff) if there were any problems with the project and said there were none,” Haugen wrote in her e-mail.
She called withholding the error a “serious breakdown” by the department.
“At best, it indicates that the culture of learning from mistakes at WSDOT is broken,” she wrote. “At worst, it raises the question of whether WSDOT’s culture allows for the hiding of mistakes and this only came to light because of its visible nature.”
Hammond had met with The News Tribune editorial board June 3 to talk about the $164 million viaduct project and made no mention of the design mistake or its cost. Last week, she apologized for the oversight, saying she had “totally forgot” about it.
At the time, Hammond pegged the cost of fixing the mistake at $890,000. That figure since has climbed to $935,600, once administrative costs of designing the fix are included.
Hammond was in Eastern Washington on Thursday and unavailable to comment on Haugen’s e-mail.
Jerry Lenzi, chief engineer for the Transportation Department, said he hadn’t seen the e-mail but said the department was not trying to hide anything from anyone.
“We didn’t communicate appropriately and properly and we will see that it won’t happen again,” he said.
Lenzi said the department’s investigation into what happened with the Nalley Valley design process will be on his desk by the end of the month and then turned over to Hammond.
Viet Shelton, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Gregoire, said Thursday that the governor understands a mistake was made and the Transportation Department needs to find out why it happened and learn from it.
As for Haugen’s e-mail, he said Gregoire agrees with a lot of the sentiment and the principles expressed in it. He said the governor believes Hammond has nurtured and emphasized a culture of transparency in conveying both good and bad news.
Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, whose district includes Nalley Valley, said she was pleased to see Haugen’s e-mail.
“She clearly makes the point that communication with the Legislature is paramount as far as transportation goes,” she said.
Regala, who is not a member of the Transportation Committee, said she has heard Hammond has made a commitment to do that.
Haugen was attending a conference in Portland and wasn’t available Thursday for an interview.
Through a staff member she said, “We are already seeing an improvement regarding DOT being open. We will be looking with more of a sharp eye at everything they do. Fool me once; don’t fool me twice.”
In her e-mail Haugen said she long has believed changes are needed in how highway projects are designed.
With the Nalley Valley project, the state used what’s known as a “design-bid-build” model. With that approach, the state designs the project and bids it out to be constructed. The state then shares risks with the contractor.
Larger projects often use a design-build model, in which outside engineers and construction companies design the project, build it and take the risk for any problems, such as design errors.
The second Tacoma Narrows Bridge was a design-build project.
Haugen said the size of design-build projects built for the state needs to be smaller.
Mike Archbold: 253-597-8692 email@example.com