Durkan's pick for the crucial post, if confirmed by the City Council, will take charge as multiple projects are in various stages of development, all with their own significant impacts the city's congested roadways.
Mayor Jenny Durkan chose Sam Zimbabwe to lead the Seattle Department of Transportation on Tuesday, tapping the Washington, D.C., project-delivery officer to guide the city’s transportation system through what promises to be one of the most challenging times to get around Seattle in recent history.
Durkan’s pick for the crucial post, if confirmed by the City Council, will take charge as multiple projects are in various stages of development, all with their own significant impacts on the city’s congested roadways.
The Washington State Convention Center is undergoing a massive expansion, Colman Dock is being rebuilt and Sound Transit is picking routes to expand the region’s light-rail network. In March, convention-center construction will evict nearly 600 buses a day from the downtown transit tunnel, further crowding city streets.
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“We needed someone with a bold vision for transportation in Seattle,” Durkan said. “Someone who’s had experience delivering big projects on time and on budget.”
Durkan has repeatedly criticized the prior administration for failing to budget projects appropriately. She said she hoped to have Zimbabwe in place by the second week of January.
She described Seattle as a city “under construction” and said the next few years would be a very difficult time to get around town.
“In the city of the future, we have the best, most robust transit system of any city in the country,” Durkan said. “We want to be that city where people can get through easily, where people are not in their cars, where they can walk, where they can bike.”
Zimbabwe, 40, has been with the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) for seven years. As the agency’s chief project-delivery officer, he has work on projects that may sound familiar to Seattle residents: a streetcar, bike sharing, a new bridge and the transformation of streets into safer, pedestrian-friendly spaces.
Before that, he worked for Reconnecting America, a national nonprofit that integrates development with transportation systems.
He described his vision of a “safe, equitable, multimodal transportation system,” and said he wants to continue to build on Seattle’s movement toward prioritizing transit, reforming parking management and building infrastructure for multiple modes of travel.
He called himself a “multimodal kind of guy” and said he usually takes the subway to work in D.C., although he rides his bike a couple time a week (a 25 minute ride) and occasionally drives when family considerations require it.
“And then I curse DDOT for our traffic management,” he said, laughing.
In D.C., Zimbabwe has overseen the city’s tentative embrace of dockless scooter-sharing, allowing the number of scooters on the street to gradually increase, although keeping caps far below what the companies have lobbied for. Durkan has so far refused to allow the companies in Seattle, citing concerns about safety and the city’s potential liability.
Seattle’s 900-employee transportation department has been led by interim directors since late last year, when Durkan took office and previous director Scott Kubly, who also once worked for the District Department of Transportation, resigned.
Durkan at the time described Kubly’s departure as a mutual decision but has since made it clear that she didn’t think highly of his performance. Facing criticism for waiting to appoint a permanent boss as the department struggled with rising costs and unkept promises on bike- and bus-lane projects, she has pointed the blame backward.
Durkan interviewed three finalists earlier this month. Those were Zimbabwe, Kamuron Gurol and Mike Worden, the news site Crosscut reported last week. Sources not cleared to speak publicly confirmed the names. The mayor’s search committee selected four finalists, but one withdrew before being interviewed, one source said.
The mayor’s office has declined to release the names of the finalists.
Gurol is a corridor-development director at Sound Transit, where he works on light-rail, bus-rapid-transit and commuter-rail projects. He previously served as city manager for Burien.
Worden is an independent consultant who specializes in strategic planning, military operations and business development. As a major general in the Air Force, he served as Warfare Center commander and air-combat vice commander.
When Kubly stepped down, Durkan tapped Goran Sparrman as interim director, his second stint running the agency on a temporary basis. Sparrman previously served as transportation director in Bellevue and deputy transportation director in Seattle.
The mayor wanted Sparrman to be her permanent transportation director, but he departed in August for a job in the private sector.
Sparrman led a review of the Seattle department’s operations and its troubled Move Seattle levy. During his time as interim boss, Durkan suspended the First Avenue streetcar project, which remains on hold.
Durkan cited Zimbabwe’s experience in helping launch D.C.’s streetcar as a reason for choosing him. Like Seattle, D.C.’s streetcar was originally planned as part of a broader system, but has been bogged down by underwhelming performance and expansion delays. It launched in 2016, but proposed extensions remain years in the future.
Durkan said the city is close to completing a review of the downtown streetcar expansion. The review was originally to be completed over the summer, but it has dragged on as experts discovered new engineering and budget complexities, she said.
“I wanted someone who had streetcar experience,” Durkan said of Zimbabwe. “We are, right now, making sure that if we decide to go forward it will be after significant community engagement.”
Linea Laird has been Seattle’s interim director since Sparrman’s departure. Laird previously served as administrator of the Highway 99 tunnel project for the Washington State Department of Transportation.