November 28 - Seattle Intelligencer: RPCV Doug MacDonald runs Washington State Department of Transportation

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Read this story on RPCV Malawi Doug MacDonald and his work as head of Washington State's Department of Transportation at:



Nov 28, 2001 - Seattle Post-Intelligencer Author(s): George Foster P-I Reporter

Doug MacDonald hunches over a studio microphone, collar open, coffee cup at the ready. At the controls sits KVI talk-show host Kirby Wilbur. A caller is complaining about getting stuck behind a freeway accident.

Secretary of Transportation MacDonald sympathizes, then cites a list of similar traffic tie-ups from the previous day. "It took 40 minutes to clear this one, and I want to know why," he tells the woman who called. He then explains his new program to clear freeways sooner after accidents, thereby at least moderating congestion.

He confesses to another caller that "some disasters" have occurred on his watch and adds, "One of the things we need to do is pay more attention." The show's producer, David Boze, tells a visitor, "It's refreshing to have a guy to come in and take any kind of call."

After eight months as the state's highway and ferry chief, MacDonald's candid approach is gaining attention in Olympia, where the norm is to accentuate one's accomplishments while tiptoeing gingerly around the flops.

Some believe this 56-year Harvard-educated lawyer, with his engaging shirt-sleeves demeanor, could instill enough leadership and confidence in the state Transportation Department to help pull off a long-term investment plan financed at least in part by a gas-tax increase.

"We'd look to him as a person who can help us come to an agreement and look at things in a new way," said Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, co-speaker of the House.

Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, House co-majority leader, added that MacDonald "would be pivotal" in generating support for fixing the state's traffic mess.

Pressure for solutions is mounting. The governor's Competitiveness Council and others see congestion relief as a stimulus for the faltering economy.

But the state lacks money to address daily rush-hour nightmares on Interstates 5 and 405 and state Route 520, and to fix the quake- damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct, among other projects. And even with heavy lobbying from business, labor and transportation interests, there is widespread skepticism that the Legislature will raise the state's 23-cent gas tax this coming session. Legislators will be up for re-election at a time when the state economy is likely to remain in a funk, and they're more likely to let voters decide on tax increases.

Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, said he hopes legislators can "make the case that the stakes are high enough to take some leadership and stick their necks out" on raising the gas tax, "but I am not optimistic."

MacDonald, on the other hand, has "brought some fresh approaches" to the state, he added.

For example, MacDonald's "Gray Notebook," a quarterly report card on performance measures available online, has sent ripples through the 6,800-employee department not accustomed to being prodded in public.

The new secretary has shaken up its executive ranks, bringing back a former assistant secretary, John Conrad, and promoting engineer Paula Hammond to a new chief-of-staff position. He has gone out early in the morning to talk with road crews, well before others in the department were even out of bed.

And letters to the transportation secretary are answered personally.

Co-Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, recalled being taken aback at a meeting with MacDonald. "Rather than give me all kinds of excuses, he says, `Right, I should have done that.'"

Some Republicans are more cautious about MacDonald's performance and his influence on the coming session.

"The jury is still out," said Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue. "A lot needs to be done."

Despite the shift in control of the Legislature to the Democrats - albeit by a narrow margin - Republican leaders are expected to be key players in transportation. Democrats, well aware of election-year jitters, don't expect to carry a transportation measure without bipartisan support.

"It's a new day in Olympia and the politics have changed, if only by a few numbers," MacDonald said.

House Republicans last year insisted on a public vote on any gas- tax increase, whether applied regionally or statewide. That blocked approval of a $9 billion measure that would have financed transportation improvements over the coming decade.

When the Legislature adjourned in July with no action on transportation, MacDonald called reporters in Olympia together. He said, "The critical thing is for us to make the case that those projects are well-managed and well-delivered. If we can show that that's a good expenditure of $1, then maybe somebody will give us five more."

Although MacDonald has crisscrossed the state with his message, Rep. Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma, and co-chairwoman of the house Transportation Committee, believes he spends too much time preaching to the choir. "He's talking to transportation nuts," she said. "He needs to convince the voters that the DOT is doing a good job. We really need the money."

Douglas B. MacDonald (he prefers Doug) was reared on Mercer Island, the son of local civil and constitutional rights attorney Kenneth MacDonald. The younger MacDonald arrived in Olympia in April after heading up the cleanup of Boston's notoriously polluted harbor. The extensive job took most of his nine years as executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

When he left Boston and the water authority, an editorial in The Boston Globe credited MacDonald with blending "the spirit of compromise and cooperation with dedication to high standards."

What the editorial didn't mention was the rebellion that MacDonald and his 11-member board met along the way.

Sewer and water customers from 43 towns staged a re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party in May 1993 to protest ever-increasing bills. There were other demonstrations.

Yet the mammoth harbor project ended costing $2.2 billion less than expected.

Before that, he had worked for a large Boston law firm and earlier served as a Peace Corps volunteer, introducing cotton-growing methods in the small southeast African nation of Malawi.

Once on the job here in April, he lost little time immersing himself in the workings of the department and making changes. Close aides found themselves working late hours gathering documents for him to study.

State Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, was struck by a chart MacDonald prepared during his first two weeks in office that showed how some of the delays in transportation projects were because of permits required from other departments.

"I thought it was wonderful to have someone so new on the job to be able to analyze the big picture."

However, his enthusiasm to get projects on track worried Virginia Gunby, former president of the environmentalist 1,000 Friends of Washington and a former state Transportation Commission member.

"He gave me the impression he does not like environmental impact statements," she said.

Jarrett, on the other hand, likes the secretary's "being aggressive about getting projects done."

MacDonald is adopting performance benchmarks within his agency, a recommendation high on the list of the governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation last year. His quarterly Gray Notebook was adapted from one he used on the court-ordered cleanup of Boston Harbor.

Old-timers in the department see a marked contrast between MacDonald and his more politic predecessor, Sid Morrison.

"Doug is more of a hands-on, day-to-day administrator, while Sid was delegator ... in the good sense," said James Toohey, a longtime assistant secretary for planning before a taking a recent voluntary demotion to do research for the department.

Morrison, a former Republican congressman and state legislator from the Yakima Valley, was picked for transportation secretary by then-Gov. Mike Lowry, a Democrat.

Morrison preached for years that inflation gradually was eating up the state's 23-cent per-gallon gas tax while the need for transportation improvements grew along with the population and economy.

A moderate with a reputation for getting along on both sides of the aisle, timing was not in Morrison's favor. He arrived the year before the anti-tax crusade of 1994, when GOP legislators gained control of the state House.

"Sid was a moderate Republican who acted in a civil manner," recalled state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle. Some conservative Republicans' style "was harsh and critical ... take no prisoners. And he (Morrison) was not going to throw back the mud."

MacDonald is more apt to engage his critics than to wear them out.

At KVI, bastion of conservative talk, MacDonald made his pitch over the air that the lack of investment in highways, transit and ferries "is a statewide problem and we've got to do something about it. ... We rely on the gas tax to do this."

Watching from the next room, Boze smiled. "He doesn't hesitate to take control of the conversation."

P-I reporter George Foster can be reached at 206-448-8341

By test on Wednesday, January 02, 2002 - 2:51 pm: Edit Post


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