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Originally published March 14, 2013 at 9:31 PM | Page modified March 15, 2013 at 3:10 PM

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Ex-DOT administrator tapped to study bridge, tunnel projects

The Inslee administration’s expert to review the Columbia River Crossing, Highway 520 and Highway 99 tunnel projects used to be the administrator on two of those.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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Washington state’s new transportation secretary announced Thursday she’s hired an expert to review the I-5 Columbia River Crossing, Highway 520 bridge and Highway 99 tunnel, choosing the former director of two of those megaprojects.

Secretary Lynn Peterson said that Ron Paananen, who administered the 520 and Highway 99 projects before taking a private-sector job, will not have a problem showing independence when he examines projects and staff he once supervised.

“Ron is a trusted person by external stakeholders (contractors) as well as internal to the department,” said Peterson. “He is a project manager now in the consulting world, with both a quality and quantity of successes.”

The review is the latest fallout from the state Department of Transportation’s finding last month that design errors in the new Highway 520 bridge pontoons caused cracking. Repairs and delays could cost more than $100 million.

State Transportation Committee co-chair Curtis King, R-Yakima, criticized the selection Thursday morning, saying Paananen is technically qualified, but faces “an enormous conflict of interest” because of his past role. King mentioned that Paananen’s current employer, CH2M Hill, receives millions of dollars in consulting fees from DOT, including $2.4 million on the I-5 project.

To be sure, it would be hard to find a qualified megaproject leader whose firm doesn’t have a foothold in the state.

The choice also baffles Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, ranking minority member of the House Transportation Committee.

“If he’s been involved with 520 and we’re having these problems, it does make one wonder if he’s going to be able to resolve any of these problems,” he said.

Paananen’s task will be to examine documentation, communication and decision-making in the projects’ technical development — as contrasted with broader issues such as the financing or usefulness of a project.

He was not immediately available for comment.

“This is about making sure we are being efficient in our megaprojects,” Peterson said. “We want to make sure checks, and double-checks, are made when we’re using taxpayer dollars.”

Paananen’s review will cost $325,000, said Steve Reinmuth, DOT chief of staff. He said the scope of work isn’t final yet and wouldn’t be released until next week. The report is due Sept. 30 and will be made public.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s spokeswoman, Jaime Smith, said the review is timed to give new DOT secretary Peterson a fresh look at ways to make the projects more efficient.

Paananen is “pretty widely respected,” Smith said. “He’s got a history of working successfully on these problems. He’s the right person to do this.”

In his job with the state, Paananen served as a bridge between engineers and politicians, especially in the run-up to the tunnel construction contract being signed in early 2011. In briefings to the City Council, he won praise for sticking to facts, from both proponent Tim Burgess and opponent Mike O’Brien.

In September 2011, he quit to work for international firm CH2M Hill on the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative in Washington, D.C. He visited Seattle a month later to join thousands of people walking on the old Alaskan Way Viaduct, to celebrate demolition of its south mile.

WashDOT’s reputation has been tarnished by design errors in the 520 bridge pontoons, built by Kiewit-General at Grays Harbor last year. They have cracks in the end walls, and officials decided to compress the walls using high-tension steel cables, to prevent the spread.

A state-hired experts’ investigation, and just-retired Secretary Paula Hammond, blamed the problem on shortcuts by senior bridge engineers and other staff.

DOT Chief of Staff Steve Reinmuth, a holdover from Hammond’s team, said this week he’s holding pre-disciplinary meetings with several employees, to propose formal punishments by April 12.

Orcutt says the agency ought to punish those responsible for pontoon cracks.

“It’s time to start holding people in DOT accountable. These people can make millions and millions of dollars in mistakes and continue to work there. That couldn’t happen anywhere else, except these agencies,” Orcutt said.

Peterson, the new DOT boss, pointed to the experts’ investigation as an impetus for her review:

“DOT needs to work on documentation, decision making, and how to use best practices,” she said.

The Columbia River Crossing has its own woes, notably an initial design that the Army Corps of Engineers ordered changed, because the bridge would be too low for tall vessels to pass below.

The Highway 99 project is moving toward its next phase, when the giant boring machine arrives in two weeks. But leaders haven’t figured out how to collect the $400 million in promised toll income, or even $200 million, without causing diversion and traffic jams.

Paananen acknowledged this problem, but left it for others to resolve, as he focused on the contract bidding and the route from Sodo to South Lake Union. His review this year will not deal with tolling.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom

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