In Sam Zimbabwe’s second week as director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, Seattle was hit with more snow than the city had seen in 52 years.
It was an appropriate start to the job for Zimbabwe, who would spend much of his three-year tenure jumping from one emergency to the next — the teardown of the viaduct, the restart of a nearly billion-dollar tax levy, the COVID-19 pandemic, the closing of the West Seattle Bridge, the takeover of six city blocks by protesters and an initiative from Tim Eyman that briefly restricted Seattle’s options for transit funding.
And yet, “beyond those emergencies, we were also able to do a lot of systemic things and get a lot done over the course of a really tumultuous three years,” Zimbabwe said in an interview last week.
Zimbabwe will leave the city at the end of the year in much the same way he began his job: with snow in the forecast and an urgent list of things still to be done. He will exit at the behest of Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, who announced last week he would replace him. Zimbabwe’s chief of staff, Kristen Simpson, will take over as interim director while Harrell searches for a replacement.
“As the new administration transitions into office, this is both the right time and the most effective time to make a leadership change at SDOT,” said a spokesperson for Harrell, Jamie Housen. Starting the search now, rather than midadministration, would make the transition smoother, he said.
Harrell was not made available for an interview.
What comes next for the department under Harrell remains to be seen. Harrell’s focus will be on the department’s culture, Housen said, organized around the “key principles of inclusivity, transparency and accessibility.” The mayor-elect will also work on improving transit access, safety, climate, increasing outreach and moving goods and cargo, Housen said.
Harrell and his new transportation director will inherit a lengthy list of priorities. The fate of the long-delayed First Avenue streetcar remains unclear. Repairs to the West Seattle Bridge must be completed. Pedestrian deaths are on the rise. Seattle’s bridges and sidewalks are in need of repairs. And the city’s $930 million “Move Seattle” levy will expire in 2024, leaving it to Harrell to decide how to sell voters on a replacement.
It’s a big job. “If SDOT wants City Hall to ask voters in 2024 to renew the Move Seattle property tax with a straight face, they need to make more progress on projects promised to voters in 2015,” said Councilmember Alex Pedersen, chair of the transportation committee.
“My hope,” said Alex Hudson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, “is that there’s a focus on stability and delivery.”
Zimbabwe came to Seattle by way of Washington, D.C., where he was the District’s Department of Transportation’s chief project-delivery officer. With a background in transit-oriented development, he had the trappings of an urbanist type who’d push for an array of transportation options rather than just single-occupancy vehicles.
While that was true, said Hudson, who was a member of the search committee that found Zimbabwe, it was his work on large projects that made him a finalist. “That was all the icing, because what we really liked about Sam was that he could deliver on capital projects,” Hudson said.
Between crises, that’s where much of Zimbabwe’s focus landed, specifically around completing projects promised as part of the 2015 Move Seattle levy. After winning voter approval under the administration of Ed Murray, Mayor Jenny Durkan concluded the ballot measure had overpromised on what it would achieve. Righting the ship became Zimbabwe’s job. Most notable was the completion of planned bike lanes downtown, as well as the addition of crosswalk signals that gave pedestrians a head start.
It was this mission, more than any ideological vision, that drove Zimbabwe’s work, he said. “I think they thought that [Seattle’s] gonna look like Copenhagen or something” under his watch, he said. “I more felt like my whole job was to do the work well, and to get the department working around commitments we’d already made, projects we’d already started, values we already held and get those done.”
“We tend to judge people a lot by what they do,” said Hudson, “and sometimes forget to also measure what doesn’t happen. And I think that Sam’s time here is one in which a whole lot of balls didn’t fall that could have under less competent leadership.”
With so much outstanding, Zimbabwe’s dismissal came as a surprise to some. After years of churn in the department, he seemed to bring some stability. Meanwhile, 11 other city departments or offices are currently led by acting directors who were never confirmed by the City Council.
“He’s not really a flashy idealogue,” said Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. “He’s just a competent bureaucrat, in the best sense of the word.”
But, said Housen, Harrell’s decision is informed, in part, by “the input of hundreds, if not thousands, of voters who he personally spoke to about neighborhood transportation issues and priorities at grocery stores and at campaign events over the past year.”
Since its founding in the late 1990s, leadership in the transportation department has turned over with each new mayor — of which there have been many in Seattle over the past 25 years.
Former Mayor Mike McGinn said that’s partially because residents’ perception of a mayor’s performance is shaped by their experience with transportation in the city.
“It’s a high-profile position in which the public interacts with it every day,” he said. “It’s unlike parks or libraries, in which your interaction is usually a positive one. Your interaction with the transportation system is likely to be a negative one.”
Housen, the spokesperson for Harrell, said the mayor-elect wanted to announce changes to SDOT early, as it’s a critical department. Under new leadership, the department will focus more on outreach than it did before, he said.
“Communities will feel more informed and involved in the SDOT process when decisions are being made,” Housen said. “Transit expansion and car pollution reduction will be focused on communities most often left out and most impacted, including in South Seattle. There will be clear expectations around and opportunities for local input, and even if neighbors disagree with the ultimate conclusion of a project or policy, they will know their voice was heard before decisions were made and finalized.”
Asked for a specific example of SDOT falling short on outreach, Housen did not respond.
In a transportation ecosystem like Seattle’s, SDOT’s director must balance a broad range of interests, which can be a challenge. Hudson said the next director should focus on broadening transit access beyond Seattle’s borders, look for incentives to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles, find new ways to bring in revenue for transit and finally tackle the streetcar question. Padelford said the director should have plans for pedestrian safety and making Seattle a more walkable, accessible place.
Meanwhile, Warren Aakervik, retired president of Ballard Oil, said SDOT has had a dearth of expertise around freight mobility. He called Zimbabwe “nice” but said the department’s underappreciation of freight had continued under his watch. “I think the person ought to have some training in free mobility of what it takes to move the freight trucks,” he said.
President of the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Whitney Moore, said she appreciated Zimbabwe’s leadership around the West Seattle Bridge. But she disagreed with the decision to add a bike lane to West Marginal Way, which she said took away “valuable capacity on a major detour and freight route that provides connectivity for our community.”
“With new leadership at City Hall, we believe there is an opportunity to take a fresh look at that project as well as set a better course for maintenance of its bridges, so we never find ourselves in this current situation again,” she said.
For Zimbabwe’s part, he sees the next director’s biggest challenges as relating to the city’s infrastructure. “There’s a lot of other infrastructure challenges that are out there, some of which we know about and some of which we don’t,” he said.
As for his next step, Zimbabwe isn’t saying just yet. But he does know this: He’s staying in Seattle.