With a background in transit-oriented development and seven years at Washington, D.C.'s District Department of Transportation, Zimbabwe is familiar with many of the same issues facing Seattle and comes with endorsements from bureaucrats and advocates alike.
Sam Zimbabwe won final confirmation Monday to head the Seattle Department of Transportation, an agency that has spent the last year mired in high-profile controversies and without a permanent director.
Acknowledging the job has “many responsibilities” ranging from major projects to delivering basic services, Zimbabwe told the City Council he was “excited for the challenges that await.”
“I’ve been here about four weeks and there’s never been a dull moment,” Zimbabwe said.
With a background in transit-oriented development and seven years at Washington, D.C.’s District Department of Transportation, Zimbabwe is familiar with many of the issues facing Seattle and comes with endorsements from bureaucrats and advocates alike.
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But the job at SDOT will bring new challenges.
Zimbabwe, 41, will oversee ongoing course corrections on two high-profile city projects: the delayed and over-budget downtown streetcar and the $930 million Move Seattle levy, under which the city over-promised bus routes, bike lanes and other projects.
He will also likely encounter low morale in a department where employees in a focus group reported favoritism, sexism and “negative consequences for speaking out.”
And while the city made it through the three-week Highway 99 closure relatively smoothly, that was just the beginning of a yearslong “period of maximum constraint” when a confluence of downtown construction projects will strain transit and drivers alike.
“You’re going to be grappling with past planning practices and decisions and helping us deliver on our present-day commitments,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda told Zimbabwe, adding later, “This is no small job.”
The City Council voted 8-0 to approve Zimbabwe on Monday. (Councilmember Mike O’Brien was absent.) Zimbabwe will make $200,000 a year.
In an interview, Zimbabwe declined to take a position on several policy questions the city may confront in coming years, including funding sources for new streetcar costs, congestion pricing, tolling ride-hailing vehicles and allowing free-floating rentable scooters.
Zimbabwe praised SDOT’s work so far in trying to correct problems with the streetcar and Move Seattle levy.
Some engineering questions remain about the streetcar project, Zimbabwe said, including details about strengthening bridges and the final design of a maintenance facility. But “I haven’t found anything that wasn’t in the reports that have been made public,” he said.
Zimbabwe’s career began at architecture firms in San Francisco and Oakland, where he did planning and design work on transportation projects and development near those projects, including BART stations in the Bay Area.
The Bay Area had a jump start on things Seattle is now grappling with, like debates over increased density and road diets, said Rick Williams, partner at Van Meter Williams Pollack, a San Francisco firm where Zimbabwe worked from 2001 to 2003.
“So, what I see is he kind of cut his teeth down here,” Williams said. “That helped him shape his overall philosophy [and] helped him deal with all these complicated issues.”
At Reconnecting America, a now-defunct think tank, Zimbabwe helped build support for dense development near transit before the idea was as commonplace as it is today, said Shelley Poticha, who was president of the organization.
“He really knows to the finest level what it takes to make ambitious change and how hard that can be,” said Poticha.
At Washington, D.C.’s transportation department, Zimbabwe worked first as associate director of policy, planning and sustainability, then as chief project delivery officer.
He helped oversee the city’s streetcar system and part of its bus system as well as certain bike and pedestrian projects, regulation of car-, bike- and scooter-share, and the district’s long-range transportation planning process known as moveDC.
Colleen Hawkinson, who worked with Zimbabwe on the plan and is now executive director of the Dupont Circle Business Improvement District, praised him as collaborative.
“I think he was made for this role,” she said of his move to SDOT.
“He’s neither a streetcar hater, nor a dogmatic streetcar supporter,” Alpert said in an interview. “He seemed to be pretty pragmatic about it.”
Alpert and other advocates described Zimbabwe as sharing general support for bike and pedestrian projects, though activists frequently wish those projects were more ambitious or happened faster.
While transportation projects can be ripe for “high-profile messes,” Alpert said, “we didn’t have a lot of those or perhaps any of them in the area Sam was responsible for.”
“I would imagine that things will get done,” Alpert said. “They may not get done as fast as advocates want, but they will get done and there probably won’t be embarrassments.”
Heading SDOT will require navigating internal tests, as well.
SDOT employees have complained about a lack of communication, according to a summary of focus-group results from a consulting firm. “You’re just as likely to be listened to as dismissed,” one employee said. “I work at the very bottom of a very top-down organization.”
Low morale at SDOT has “less to do with lack of permanent leadership than it does with racial bias, discrimination, and the lack of transformational leadership within the organization,” the Seattle Silence Breakers, a group of current and former city employees who have raised concerns about harassment and discrimination, said in a statement.
The group said Zimbabwe should encourage SDOT employees to talk to the recently created Office of Employee Ombud and familiarize himself with recommendations from a team that reviewed the city’s harassment and discrimination policies.
Zimbabwe said he has offered to meet with the Silence Breakers, who have raised some “really serious issues.”
One area “incumbent on me” to improve SDOT’s internal culture, Zimbabwe said, is employees’ fear of retribution for speaking up. “Not having a place where people can come forward means that you can’t address issues early until they become a larger set of issues,” he said.
Zimbabwe has already become a familiar face in City Hall, appearing at press briefings and a meeting of a citizen oversight committee.
During the February snowstorms and closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, staff at King County Metro, Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation praised Zimbabwe’s work, said Councilmember Rob Johnson, who supported the new director’s confirmation, in an interview.
The fallout from the storms isn’t over yet, though. Cold temperatures damaged roads, leaving potholes Seattle drivers, cyclists and transit riders are noticing on their daily commutes.
Zimbabwe said the department is “getting a sense” of the scope of damage, but doesn’t yet have a cost estimate. SDOT should know in about a month the full costs of the snow response, he said.