Pauses and underlined phrases told the story on Tuesday as Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that Sam Zimbabwe will leave his Washington, D.C., job to become director of what has been a troubled Seattle Dept. of Transportation.
Zimbabwe has been “Chief Project Delivery Officer” for the District Department of Transportation in the nation’s capital. Durkan took time to pronounce each word of his title. SDOT has wrestled mightily with on time, on budget completion of projects.
Zimbabwe was picked, Durkan emphasized because, “most importantly, his ability to deliver projects.”
The naming of Zimbabwe completes a trio of appointments which will help determine the success of Durkan’s tenure on the seventy floor of City Hall.
After some go-rounds, the Mayor named popular acting Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best for the permanent job as chief of Seattle’s Finest. Debra Smith has made a strong positive impression since being tapped from a medium-sized Oregon public utility to be the new CEO of Seattle City Light.
“It is something that I relish and that I really look forward to,” said Zimbabwe, who has been with the District Department of Transportation for seven years.
The Seattle Dept. of Transportation has been given great resources by Seattle’s generous voters, the $360 million Bridging the Gap levy of 2006, and the gargantuan $930 million Move Seattle levy of 2015.
Yet, arterials decorated with “Fix this Street!” signs in 2006 still haven’t been fixed. SDOT laid out promises at workshops promoting Move Seattle, but has been forced to scale back delivery of what was promised to the voters.
“The first thing you need to do is admit that you were wrong,” Durkan said, although moving much responsibility to the previous administration at City Hall. “Some of the project planning wasn’t realistic,” she added.
The city’s previous transportation director, Scott Kubly, resigned by “mutual decision” with Durkan, on December 15, 2017. The Mayor has conducted a year-long review of SDOT operations before tapping its new boss.
In a notable move, Durkan halted work on the Center City Connector after an independent review pegged cost of the downtown streetcar at up to $252 million, more than $100 million over its original budget of $143.2 million.
A few Seattle transit advocates have taken to defending soaring costs of the Connector with the same increased-materials-costs arguments used in the 1980’s to justify skyrocketing budgets of the Washington Public Supply System nuclear program.
Durkan was not showing her cards on the project’s future — yet.
“We are close to having the engineering and all that reviewed,” she said. The Mayor has kept the city in line for federal money. “If we decide to go forward, there will be a lot of community planning,” she added.
The pace of construction in Seattle has been such that the Emerald City has topped the country in construction cranes. A popular joke is that the construction crane stands to be the city’s official bird.
The region has been “playing catch up on its transportation needs,” Durkan acknowledged, and was “not ready” for the pace of its growth. “We don’t deny there were significant problems,” the Mayor said.
Zimbabwe will inherit ongoing controversies, from completion of the Burke Gilman Trail through the industrial area around Salmon Bay — the blending of bicycles to a working waterfront — and conflict between SDOT and neighborhood businesses over a bicycle lane on 35th NE.
SDOT has not always tread lightly, notably with the great, prolonged construction mess on 23rd Avenue, the main north-south arterial through the Central Area. The mess hurt neighborhood businesses.
Zimbabwe is aware of what he is getting into. “No other city across the country has the trajectory of challenges that Seattle has right now,” he said. The new SDOT director is a bicycle rider and frequent patron of Washington, D.C.’s Metro subway.
“We have managed to get projects, that were stuck for a variety of reasons, unstuck,” he said.
The new SDOT director expects to wrap up his commitments in the “other” Washington and be on the job here by the middle of January.