Sam Zimbabwe, the Chief Project Delivery Officer for the District Department of Transportation, will be moving across the country to lead the Seattle Department of Transportation. Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan announced the pick Tuesday afternoon.
He will continue something of a trend of DDOT top officials heading up Pacific Northwest transportation departments; former DDOT transit & bikeshare head Scott Kubly was the last SDOT director, and Leah Treat went from overseeing finances at DDOT to heading Portland's transportation department. (Gabe Klein, the DDOT director at the time, went to lead transportation in Chicago as well.)
This is a great pick for Seattle and a loss for DC. Several people have said Sam was a big force in keeping DDOT together and on track, especially through the leadership changes of the last four years. Sam pushed DDOT to be more effective at actually following through on its promises, shepherded the MoveDC plan, and oversaw a reorganization which brought planning and engineering together into one structure to get the two groups working together more smoothly.
When Sam was hired to lead the planning group in 2011, DDOT had been losing good people; I titled a post at the time, “DDOT brain drain no more.”
Sam and I haven't always agreed on everything. I and other advocates often pushed him to be more ambitious, while he was concerned about limiting DDOT to more achievable promises and having definitive studies to back up its decisions. There were times when he let the engineers and their models push projects to focus more on keeping traffic flowing than we really ought to do to achieve Vision Zero and get to DC's mode share goals. But there's no doubt that Sam made DDOT more professional and more effective, and he always was good-humored about the perhaps natural push-pull between advocates and government officials.
Sure. I worked with Sam on the Major Crash Task Force. Sam is knowledgeable and professional. Never flustered. Always prepared. He was dedicated to the ideas of Vision Zero, but he's not one to rock the boat in the way that's needed for big change that VZ needs.
— Wash Cycle (@Wash_cycle) December 18, 2018
I number myself among those critics and I agree - Sam has been as frustrated as anyone when his agency has failed to progress, and he has always persisted and even thrived where others have struggled. DC is better for his work.
— DaveS (@darsal) December 18, 2018
I'd expect a similar dynamic to evolve between Sam and advocates for livable streets and sustainable transportation in Seattle as they push for bolder action, but there's no doubt that Sam shares their fundamental values about wanting more effective transit, safer streets for walking and bicycling, and more rational parking policies.
Seattle is currently debating whether to go ahead with a project to connect two existing streetcar lines through the downtown. Sam is well positioned to navigate this dynamic, including the politics of a mayor's office which appears not totally convinced one way or the other, while he remains unequivocally in favor of a transit-oriented vision.
The big question for people in our region is, who can fill Sam's shoes as Chief Project Delivery Officer? We will need a strong leader for this critical section of DDOT, which is responsible for everything DDOT builds, from bridges to bike lanes. That person will need the technical chops to make sure projects stay on track and the vision to make sure they keep pushing to achieve DC's goals around mode share, sustainability, safety, and more. They need to manage many timelines at once and not be complacent or demoralized by at times large administrative hurdles for government to achieve anything. They need to be able to work well with advocates, engineers, federal regulators, community members, and many others.
This will be a key appointment that determines whether and how much DDOT moves forward (or backward) in the years to come. Meanwhile, good luck in Seattle, Sam, and congraulations!