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Originally published Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: 520 bridge mistakes shake public confidence

Embarrassing design errors by Washington State Department of Transportation engineers could cost taxpayers tens of millions to fix. The agency’s next director and state leaders must work to restore public confidence.

Seattle Times Editorial

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LAST week, the outgoing Washington State Department of Transportation secretary admitted her agency made mistakes while building several pontoons to hold up the Highway 520 bridge.

The estimated $100 million price tag to fix those errors isn’t the only factor that makes taxpayers’ stomachs churn.

Cracks found in the faulty pontoons were caused by shortcuts taken by the Transportation Department’s own engineers, according to various media reports. Secretary Paula Hammond has released investigative reports indicating they failed to run models before they started building.

A $200 million contingency fund should cover the cost, Hammond asserts, but it’s a bad sign when half that money is wiped out on a project that is now delayed by months and underfunded by $1.4 billion.

Gov. Jay Inslee wants those responsible for the 520 bridge mess to be held accountable. Hammond has promised more inquiry and disciplinary action against those found responsible, but she leaves Friday.

Now is the time to take a closer look at her chosen successor, Lynn Peterson.

Inslee says he chose Peterson, an engineer and adviser to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, because of her vision for integrating public transit and existing highways while reducing carbon emissions.

Behind the scenes, some Republican state lawmakers balk at what they view as her lack of project-management experience for a job that requires overseeing a $7 billion budget every two years and 7,200 full-time employees.

Peterson needs to have enough political savvy to withstand the pressure, especially as lawmakers simultaneously debate ways to raise money for new construction projects and to fix the other cracks growing on aging roads.

A number of conservative members want to slow down spending and ensure funds are properly used before they green-light any new fees or increase the gas tax.

They say the latest miscalculations on the 520 bridge prove they’re right.

Caution is necessary, but wasting the opportunity to plan ahead would also be unwise. A balanced, transparent approach to fixing highways will create jobs, move goods and steady the economic recovery.

State leaders within the Transportation Department and the Legislature must draw lessons from this latest setback and work collectively to restore public confidence.

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