The former Air Force major general Seattle tasked with helping lead the city through this year’s downtown traffic squeeze will likely leave his job by the end of December, according to the mayor’s office.
Mayor Jenny Durkan created the position and hired Mike Worden at a salary of $195,000 in January, saying he would coordinate across different city departments as they grappled with the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and other traffic issues.
But Worden has faced skepticism from the start. Durkan hired him after he was a finalist — but not her hire — to head the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), raising questions about the value of hiring both Worden and new SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe. Worden has also made few appearances before the Seattle City Council, and council members have indicated they have little idea what he does.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the transportation committee, said during a recent budget meeting he was “not aware of any of the work” Worden is doing.
“In the trade off when there’s lots of other demands, [I’m] just questioning the value of this position because I haven’t received any of the value,” O’Brien said.
Councilmember M. Lorena González said that “taxpayers are paying $195,000 for a director of citywide mobility operations and we want to know and have a sense of confidence that we’re getting what we’re paying for.”
In an email Sunday night to O’Brien and Council President Bruce Harrell, Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong wrote that Worden’s role “was established as a temporary position” and that “the worst-case scenarios” related to the Seattle Squeeze “have not materialized.”
“As such, barring unforeseen circumstances during SR-99 tolling or preparation for Connect 2020 [when light rail service will be squeezed by construction], Director Worden should be able to complete the foundational work … by the end of December, at which time his work with the City will come to an end,” Fong wrote. “We’re grateful he was able to offer his expertise to help Seattle in this challenging time.”
Worden’s calendar for part of 2019 reflected significant blocks of “out and about” time, which the mayor’s office says involves Worden talking to transit riders, as first reported by independent journalist Erica C. Barnett.
A memo Worden produced about his work, published by Barnett, included among his tasks: drafting a memorandum of understanding about “Traffic Incident Management/Congestion Management;” coleading a congestion management work group; looking at various city departments to “see what they are doing to improve their processes and products/services;” hosting “government wide debriefs and prebriefs with the City’s Private Sector;” and riding transit “every am and pm to observe.”
Fong’s email to council members said Worden’s “primary assignments” included improving response times to traffic incidents and managing congestion “at the regional level.”
Worden “has been leading the efforts” to implement recommendations issued after the 2015 fish-truck debacle, in which a truck hauling a load of cod overturned on the Alaskan Way Viaduct and shut the highway for more than nine hours, Fong wrote.
Asked about Worden’s work in a recent interview, Durkan said, “He does a range of things … His job is kind of outside of SDOT to make sure that as all the different agencies are coming together that if there’s friction points either within the city or with WSDOT [the Washington State Department of Transportation] or Sound Transit that we’re not getting too siloed.”
She also questioned a focus on Worden.
“In the huge challenges we have on transportation right now, for individuals to be focused on one individual to think that is where they should spend their energy — not a single council member spent their time with me on that,” Durkan said. “They’re all focused on the bigger challenges of the city right now.”