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Seattle mayor picks DC transportation planner to lead SDOT

The nomination still needs City Council approval

Courtesy of SDOT

As Seattle approaches a full year without a permanent director for its Department of Transportation (SDOT), Mayor Jenny Durkan has announced her pick for the job: DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) Chief Project Delivery Officer Sam Zimbabwe.

Most recently, Zimbabwe guided DDOT’s “multimodal transportation network,” which includes overseeing DC’s dockless bike and scooter program. Formerly an associate policy director, Zimbabwe guided efforts around Vision Zero—in DC, it’s a goal for zero traffic deaths by the year 2024, as opposed to 2030 in Seattle—along with helping to shepherd Move DC, an ambitious plan to boost transit and bike lane capacity while deprioritizing cars. Notably, Move DC called for congestion pricing, a tactic that Durkan’s administration has prioritized studying.

Zimbabwe is inheriting SDOT during a precarious time for Seattle: what urban planners are calling the “period of maximum constraint” and what others are calling the “Seattle Squeeze,” when multiple road and construction projects are expected to converge into heavy bottlenecks on downtown streets. That includes a three-week gap between the permanent closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the opening of the new State Route 99 tunnel, continued construction on Alaskan Way and on Coleman Dock, and Washington State Convention Center construction.

SDOT is also currently facing timelines to implement a “basic bike network” and handling the delayed Center City Connector streetcar project no matter which way it goes—something Zimbabwe has experience with. DC’s streetcar line has been open to some of the same perils of public perception as Seattle’s: Accusations of poor planning and high-profile implementation delays riddled a single, two-mile stretch, with streetcars that move more slowly than similar bus routes. (Ridership on the line is okay, but complicated.)

“Seattle is entering a new era of transit and transportation that will require effective delivery of capital projects along with a focus on giving more people access to safe options for walking, biking, and using transit,” said Zimbabwe in a statement.

SDOT is currently being led by Linea Laird, who took over the interim director position from Goran Sparrman back in August. The last permanent director, Scott Kubly, left to take a job at Lime back in January.

Before taking his post at SDOT, Zimbabwe will have to be confirmed by the Seattle City Council.

To some groups invested in Seattle’s transit, the choice signaled the potential for increased investment in transit. “Zimbabwe seems like a promising choice to lead SDOT,” said Transit Riders Union general secretary Katie Wilson over email. “I hope this signals a new commitment from Mayor Durkan to move with urgency on bus lanes, bike lanes and pedestrian safety.”

The Downtown Seattle Association did not address Zimbabwe specifically in an emailed statement, but said the organization “look[s] forward to working with SDOT’s new director” on a slate of “vital projects in a holding pattern,” including the Center City Connector.

This article has been updated with statements from TRU and DSA.