Muriel Bowser has nominated Leif Dormsjo to run the District Department of Transportation. Who’s Leif Dormsjo, and should urbanists be excited about the pick?
Several current and former transportation professionals in the Washington region said there’s reason for hope. One wrote in an email, “I think it’s a really good pick, and bodes well for a number of things in DC.”
Dormsjo most recently served as a deputy transportation secretary at the Maryland Department of Transportation, where he worked on the procurement and public-private partnership funding for the Purple Line.
The experts, who weren’t willing to speak publicly because they continue to work in or do business with governments in the region, said that management is Dormsjo’s strong point. DDOT needs strong management right now, because perhaps its major weakness has been its ability to deliver on projects.
There are the oft-criticized streetcar delays, obviously, but also smaller projects like the Rhode Island Avenue pedestrian bridge, which was delayed for two years because of problems attracting bidders; a streetlight contract that got overturned twice for contracting problems; visitor parking pass innovations that have been promised for years but never delivered; and more.
One expert who was willing to be quoted anonymously said, “Leif is strongly supportive of performance measurement and contracting and was instrumental in the procurement approach taken for the Purple Line.” In fact, this expert feels that Leif’s departure could be a blow to the Purple Line project.
“I think his personality plus his political background will make him demanding of his engineers to give good, performance-based reasons for things,” he added. “He will want to have people on board who will be able to work with that kind of expectation.”
Dormsjo’s challenge: Delivering on the District’s existing vision
Fortunately, Dormsjo doesn’t have to devise a vision on his own. DDOT has a strong vision, the MoveDC long-term plan and the two-year action plan. These efforts took more than a year combining feedback from residents and community groups from across the city to set a direction for DC’s transportation.
If Mayor Bowser and Dormsjo are willing to build on that success, they can immediately start getting things done to improve life for residents in the District and the region. That would mean using the action plan as an initial blueprint; retaining the officials, like Sam Zimbabwe and other top planners, who devised it; and devoting energy to fixing structural problems at DDOT that get in the way of achieving these goals.
DC’s vision includes improvements to services that WMATA operates, meaning Dormsjo will have to strengthen the ability of DDOT and WMATA to work together instead of at cross-purposes. Securing funding for MoveDC and WMATA capital needs will be a big challenge, particularly with oversight of WMATA and the rest of transportation being in separate DC Council committees under Jack Evans and Mary Cheh, respectively.
While it’s built a good vision, DDOT has struggled to follow through on projects. To change this, Dormsjo will need to focus on a few key areas:
Communicating: Communication has been a weak point at DDOT in recent years. This is much more than just having a spokesperson or putting out fact sheets; to improve transportation, you need buy-in from stakeholders, and that means sharing information and building relationships with community groups, business groups, advocacy organizations, blogs, and more.
It also means communicating proactively with councilmembers and council staff, which DDOT did either poorly or not at all for most of the last administration.
When the DC Council cut streetcar funding, for instance, few or none of the stakeholders who had cheered for the program under Gabe Klein were then prepared to defend it. A big reason: DDOT had spent years ignoring all of those stakeholders, giving councilmembers vague and unsatisfying answers, and making decisions which many disagreed with. If you go it alone, you’ll be alone, and you won’t succeed.
Listening: Residents deserve to have a say in transportation projects that affect them, and they often have something valuable to contribute. At the same time, it’s not possible to get every single person to agree. An agency has to set up a process to communicate its ideas and really listen to input, consider that closely, and then take action.
It’s too common for the people running a project to either just go through the motions and not actually listen, or for them to do whatever the last person to talk to them suggested. A good process would set a defined period of time for input, which will depend on the type of project, and after that, have an understanding on all sides that it’s time to make a call and move forward.
Removing the bottlenecks: DDOT has some people who’ve put themselves in a position where they have to say yes before something can move forward. The director needs to ensure that everyone who needs to be involved in a project can be, to make it better, but also so that they can’t just shut it down or delay it indefinitely. Bottleneck people need to be in roles where they can add value, and if they can’t do that, should be removed.
Hiring, trusting, and protecting good people: The director can’t be a bottleneck either. DDOT needs good people who can understand their roles and act within them independently. And if something they do arouses controversy, a good director will protect them. If they made a mistake, correct it, but support the person.
Staying true to the vision: You can manage to performance standards, but a lot depends on which standards you choose. Is it how many people you move? How fast? Safety? Cost? This matters because transportation decisions often trade off among these. The 1960s traffic engineering paradigm was all about standards, just narrow ones that ignored important goals around making it safe and comfortable to walk, bike, and take transit.
Sometimes DDOT is so focused on getting a project done that officials lose sight of why they are doing the project. A great example is the Southeast Boulevard, where DDOT circularly set about planning an isolated four-lane boulevard to replace a four-lane freeway. It took the Office of Planning getting involved to really think about the best use of the land.
Or the streetcar, for that matter; we had a streetcar plan, and often, that seemed to mean DDOT was intent on building a streetcar just because. There were, and are, reasons to build a streetcar instead of another mode, but the people running the effort didn’t seem to know what those were. And they were often more interested in getting rails down in the street most expediently instead of examining if, for instance, we need a dedicated lane to make it worthwhile to ride.
There’s always a tradeoff between getting it done and doing it right. A good director will ensure that there’s a balance. That means buying into and believing in the overall vision, to best know when it’s okay to compromise on something and when that will damage the whole effort too much.
Can and will Leif Dormsjo do these? Those that know him say we can move into the coming year with strong hopes.