In a press conference yesterday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan named Washington, D.C. District Department of Transportation (DDOT) official Sam Zimbabwe the new Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
When Zimbabwe is confirmed by the Council—Durkan said she expects him to start work in “early January”—he will be SDOT’s first permanent director in a year. The mayor described Zimbabwe as a proven manager of capital projects, who will manage SDOT effectively after years of dysfunction.
Durkan also laid out an ambitious “unified vision” for multimodal transportation and a dense, transit-oriented built environment, and called transportation the “backbone of equity,” striking back against urbanist critiques of her administration.
“The vision that we have to have is that, in the [Seattle] of the future,” Durkan said, “we have the best, most robust transit system anywhere in the country.”
“Around every one of those transit centers is a new hub of community. If you do transit oriented development right, you’ll have all kinds of housing, you’ll have small commercial spaces, you’ll have plazas with restaurants and bars. People will be able to walk to where they want to get, and bike.”
Zimbabwe described his goals in similar terms. If Durkan and Zimbawe follow through on that vision, it will be a stark contrast to the first year of her administration. Durkan has been criticized by transit advocates (including us) for holding up or obstructing planned projects.
However, the mayor has maintained that reassessing projects like Move Seattle and the Center City Connector is a necessity brought on by the poor planning and project management, rather than opposition to their goals or methods. The appointment of Zimbabwe is, on its face, an indication that Durkan has been sincere.
Sources say that Durkan had hoped to name an SDOT director much sooner, but decided the Goran Sparrman- and Anne Fennesy-led agency audit and reorganization needed to be finished before a hiring. The recruiting process then took longer than the mayor had hoped, extending the agency’s gap in permanent leadership.
“My vision is for a safe, equitable, multimodal transportation system,” Zimbabwe said. “We have to build out the infrastructure that supports choices for people of all ages and all abilities, build out a network that supports walking, biking, and taking transit as choices for everybody.”
When asked about his commute, Zimbabwe said that he is a “multimodal kind of guy,” and either rides the D.C. Metro or bikes to work. Zimbabwe also hedged, saying that he sometimes drives to work and “curses DDOT” for its traffic management strategies.
Alex Hudson, the Director of Transportation Choices Coalition and a member of the mayor’s search committee, said that Zimbabwe’s blend of multimodal vision, and strong track record of project management, made him stand out.
“I’m excited. I think he’s a great hire, and I think he’s going to be a great asset for Seattle,” Hudson said. “I appreciate that Mr. Zimbabwe has experience in what I think are our important needs right now—capital project delivery and prioritization—and also dealing with a transportation system that is under a lot of pressure.”
Cleaning up after Kubly
The mayor said that one of Zimbabwe’s crucial tasks was “restoring credibility” to SDOT.
“We do some things really, really well at [SDOT],” Durkan said, “but we had taken on some big capital projects, like the streetcar and Move Seattle, where planning and budgeting for those projects is not what should have occurred. …The previous administration, when we promised [Move Seattle] projects—we couldn’t deliver them.”
When asked about his accomplishments in D.C., Zimbabwe said that he was most proud of his ability to deliver projects on time and on budget.
“We’ve managed to cut the time it takes us to move a project from planning into design and construction,” Zimbabwe said. “We’ve managed to get some projects that were long stuck unstuck, and are now at the point of being built. …We got our streetcar, which had its own challenges, operational and operating safely for the last three years.”
Zimbabwe’s predecessor as SDOT’s permanent diretor, Scott Kubly, was also a DDOT veteran. In D.C., as in Seattle, Kubly launched an ambitious streetcar project that became controversial and got delivered late. Zimbabwe was, as DDOT’s Chief Project Delivery Officer, one of the officials tasked with fixing the troubled streetcar network, and seems to have succeeded.
Durkan could be betting Zimbabwe will be able to repeat the same thing here—though the mayor declined to announce the final fate of the Center City Connector. Zimbabwe declined to endorse the project before examining it more closely.
“[A streetcar is] a transit mode that has context to it,” Zimbabwe said. “That’s one place where I feel like I need to understand what’s been going on.”
Durkan did say that, contrary to speculation, FTA grants for the Connector are not in peril, saying grants had been “maintained,” but the City needs to “do more to get those grants.”
Durkan also said that the City Council will need to vote on the Connector again “if we decide to go forward” following “significant community engagement.” Durkan did not say when the decision to go forward or a Council bill would come.
When asked, the mayor also continued to voice skepticism of motorized scooters, citing concerns that the City could be held liable for rider accidents and injuries. Durkan said she had tasked present, Interim SDOT Director Linnea Laird with studying those concerns.