State's new transportation chief faces big challenges
It shouldn't be hard to find people unhappy with new Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond. There are the ferry riders whose trips have...
Seattle Times staff reporter
It shouldn't be hard to find people unhappy with new Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.
There are the ferry riders whose trips have been disrupted by aging, broken-down boats.
There are the truck drivers who lost millions of dollars when Interstate 5 was closed during the December floods in Lewis County and when the mountain passes were shut down this winter because of avalanches.
There are the ferry workers who have seen their schedules upended by the uncertainties of which boats would be running on which routes.
Yet Hammond, who took over the state's top transportation job in November, is so popular, and comfortable in her role, she can even mock herself.
"I'm the person who shuts things down," she joked at a recent meeting.
Hammond, 51, the first woman to head the state Department of Transportation, is no novice when it comes to transportation issues. She's been with the DOT for nearly 30 years, working her way up from entry-level engineer.
She was the chief aide to former Secretary Doug MacDonald, who recommended her as his successor. Hammond manages more than 7,000 employees, 7,000 miles of highways, 3,300 bridges and tunnels and 29 state ferries that carry 26 million passengers each year.
She is paid $163,500 a year.
"What we've learned in the past three to four months is how much we've taken the transportation system for granted and how much we can't," said Hammond, sitting in her Olympia office near the state Capitol, where she's been spending much of her time this winter. "My job is to be steward of the system. We have to keep transportation whole."
She knows she's been clobbered with the ills of the state ferries and the closed freeways. Yet even those people most affected don't blame Hammond.
One reason may be that she's been on the job only a few months.
"Paula Hammond is new. She couldn't do anything," said Bremerton resident Ann Erickson, who has been critical of what she sees as Bremerton taking the brunt of the ferry woes. "Every little hiccup and burp, they punish Bremerton, and we're sick of it," she said.
Erickson blames legislators, not Hammond, for the trouble. "We have to give Paula a chance. Let's give her a chance to see what she can come up with."
Gordon Baxter, lobbyist for the Inlandboatmen's Union, which represents workers on the state ferries, agrees.
"I think she's been doing a great job," he said. "She's the first one who's had the nerve to say, 'Let's look at all the vessels and the fleet and not make a political decision, but a decision that is best for the system and best for the users.' Yanking those four Steel Electrics out of service, that couldn't have been an easy decision."
Hammond pulled the four 80-year-old boats out of service in November because of extensive hull damage, eliminating car-ferry trips between Keystone on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend. It caused a huge uproar.
MacDonald, who retired in July, said he's not sure he would have had the political nerve to do the same thing.
"Her decision to pull the four boats was a very gutsy decision that showed her quality — no baloney," MacDonald said. "I wonder if I would have been so bold or so decisive. I'm not sure I could have done it."
State Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley and member of the Transportation Committee, said she supported Hammond's appointment, but criticized her appointment of David Moseley as new head of the state ferries.
"I was critical of hiring a director of ferries with no maritime experience," said Pflug, who believes Gov. Christine Gregoire heavily influenced the decision.
From "grunt work" to top job
Hammond was born and raised in Klamath Falls, Ore., and graduated in 1979 from Oregon State University in civil engineering, one of eight women in a class of 120. Recently she returned to Corvallis with her two daughters to be inducted into the OSU College of Engineering's Academy of Distinguished Engineers.
She had several job offers after she graduated and accepted the one from the Washington Department of Transportation.
Her first job was engineer I, inspecting an asphalt plant in Montesano. She also worked on the survey crew for the replacement of the Hood Canal Bridge. "It was grunt work young engineers had to do," she said.
The benefit is that she knows a lot of the people she now bosses.
"When I applied for the [top DOT] job I was overwhelmed by the support I got," Hammond said. "I have a sense we are a very big family."
Even though she considers him her mentor, Paula Hammond is no Doug MacDonald. She doesn't send e-mails at 2 a.m. She doesn't have a cellphone glued to her ear. She's unlikely to pull over when she sees a road-construction site, as MacDonald was prone to do, often making him late to meetings.
It annoys her when she's at a meeting and all the participants are working on their BlackBerries. When she pulls out her own at home, her children chide her.
She has three: son Greg, 19, who attends Western Washington University; daughter Rachel, 16, who wants to be a government lawyer; and daughter Kerry, 10, who has an artistic flair. Both girls are active in Irish dancing.
Hammond said one reason she's been able to balance her work and home life is her husband, Alan, to whom she's been married nearly 30 years. A land surveyor with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, he's the one who picks the girls up from school.
"I have very little free time," she said. "Doug [MacDonald] had no life."
By her own accounts, Hammond is not a patient person.
"I'm the kind of person who likes decisiveness," she said. "My style is to make a decision and move forward, and it's nice to have a governor like that."
"Never loses her cool"
Much of Hammond's work recently has been dealing with the Legislature on various transportation issues. House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, gives her high marks.
"What a breath of fresh air," she said. "She never loses her cool. I saw her at 4 a.m. on Snoqualmie Pass, at 8 a.m. in Olympia and at noon in Spokane with the governor."
As for the decision to pull the four ferries out of service, "I think she did everything she had to do, and she had the guts to do it," Clibborn said.
"She answers questions straight and owns up to things that go wrong." Clibborn said she had no idea when Hammond was appointed that she was an engineer. An engineer hasn't led the department, known for political appointments, since 1981. When MacDonald was hired six years ago, he confessed that he knew little about roads and engineering.
MacDonald said that when Hammond was his chief of staff, a lot of the day-to-day work got funneled through her office.
"A lot of stuff went in her door and out her door," he said. "In dealing with the Legislature, there's a quality of candor about her and a sense of humor. Her personality is enormously warm and open. She's had to deal with one crisis after another in an extraordinary way."
Hammond said she doesn't spend every day wondering what MacDonald would have done, and that's probably no more apparent than when she was dealing with the ferry crisis.
If she'd known what faced her in ferries, would she still have taken the job? Yes, she says.
"Every problem has a solution," she said. "We knew when we lost the [motor-vehicle excise tax] we had to rebuild the fleet. We let it linger too long until things started to suffer."
But she is no apologist for the DOT. She said when the ferry system realized two years ago it couldn't build a new dock in Keystone, it took too long to come up with a new plan.
"Is the DOT clean in all this? No," she said. "We knew we needed more than the three 144-car ferries, but there was group indecision. We were put in a place where there was no answer."
She said the sense of ownership people feel about the ferry system has never been fully understood, but it's finally caught the attention of the Legislature. She said a substantial revenue source is needed for ferries, and raised the possibility of a property tax for ferry commuters.
On other transportation issues, Hammond said she is optimistic about the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Work is being done now on the south end, and Gov. Christine Gregoire is expected to decide by the end of the year on what to do with the central waterfront portion.
Hammond said the state will look at a surface option for the viaduct, "but it would have to prove it can take a lot of the traffic." Some surface-option critics say that's a high hurdle for the state to overcome.
As for Highway 520, she believes that both that bridge and the Interstate 90 bridge will eventually have tolls to pay for the 520 replacement. Hammond is a believer in user fees, time-of-day tolling, and HOT lanes that drivers pay to use. "We're beyond the place where the gas tax can sustain us," she said.
Hammond was appointed by a Democratic governor, but says she's made friends across the political spectrum.
"Many of my Republican friends are telling me I'm doing a good job," said Hammond. "That's a small measure of satisfaction."
Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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