Jones (right) on a 2018 panel with (left to right) current WABA Executive Director Greg Billing, DDOT Director Jeff Marootian, and Veronica Davis of Nspiregreen. Image by DDOT.

When Sam Zimbabwe left to head Seattle’s Department of Transportation, he left some big shoes to fill. That position will now go to Ellen Jones, who is currently Deputy Executive Director of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District and previously headed up the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Jeff Marootian, head of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), announced the move to DDOT staff Tuesday morning and spoke with Greater Greater Washington about what the choice means for the agency.

Jones has a long history in transportation, begining at the Federal Highway Administration. She headed up WABA until 2004, when she moved to the BID to oversee transportation issues, rising to Deputy Executive Director last year.

I didn’t work with her during her WABA days, but at the BID she has been a continual supporter of helping people get to and from downtown by Metro, bus, bike, walking, and other sustainable modes of transportation. She bicycles to work regularly and was until recently the Ward 3 representative and often chair of the Bicycle Advisory Council, on whose behalf she often testified at the DC Council about the need for faster progress on building a network of connected bikeways.

Jones also headed up DCST when it used to be housed at the DowntownDC BID and focused on Circulator. She was instrumental in planning for Circulator expansion during the system’s earlier years. In 2017, DCST broadened its focus and moved to its current structure of being managed by GGWash; Jones is in a sense my immediate predecessor as DCST Executive Director.

Fortunately, the Downtown BID’s transportation expertise remains strong as Galin Brooks, until recently Vice President of Planning and Economic Development at the NoMA BID, just started as Director of Infrastructure for DowntownDC.

Jones will be the second-ever Chief Project Delivery Officer

The position of Chief Project Delivery Officer at DDOT is itself pretty new. The heads of engineering, planning, traffic signals, etc. used to all report to the Director. But there was not enough coordination between the groups, which were even in different buildings. Planners would engage communities to devise changes to a street and then “throw it over the wall,” as some said, to engineers who would then try to design it. The planners would say the engineers weren’t trying to stay faithful to their vision. The engineers would say what the planners designed isn’t technically feasible.

A DDOT reorganization in 2014 created a new C-level tier in the DDOT org structure. The Chief Administrative Officer (Dorinda Floyd) oversees agency administration. The Chief Performance Officer (John Thomas) monitors performance measurement, IT, and customer service. The Chief Operations Officer (Howard Ways) has parking, Urban Forestry (street trees), public space permitting, maintenance, and so on. And a new position, the Chief of External Affairs (Dena Iverson) includes policy, media relations, community engagement, and the new Vision Zero office.

DDOT organization chart July 2019 by DDOT.

But the executive overseeing all of the construction and road changes and all of that is the Chief Product Delivery Officer. Sam Zimbabwe, previously head of planning, was promoted to be the agency’s first and thus far only CPDO. He personally had a strong hand in all of the major decisions DDOT made about visible infrastructure changes. He both pushed the agency forward and at times clashed with activists, who wanted to see more progress while Zimbabwe wanted to back up decisions with more firm studies.

The new Chief Project Delivery Officer’s team can push good decision-making at DDOT

According to Marootian, he will be strengthening the CPDO’s team so that no one person has to personally manage everything that’s going on. There will now be a Deputy Chief Project Delivery Officer, Amanda Stout, who I’ve worked with and is terrific. In addition, Marootian said, they will add four positions for Associate Chief Project Delivery Officers who will take on individual projects and shepherd them from start to finish, ensuring that the decisions reflect the agency’s prorities and handling public engagement, communications, and so forth.

This seems like a promising direction. Marootian has brought in a core team of people who are really pushing the agency’s priorities around safety and Vision Zero, connected networks for walking and biking, faster and more reliable bus service, and more. Sometimes DDOT seems unpredictable because there are high-priority projects those folks are watching closely and then other projects where they might not be.

The new set of ACPDOs could be similar to the tech company Product Manager job which I held at two tech companies when I worked in Silicon Valley. A PM doesn’t build the software or design the graphics or review the legal questions or send out the marketing copy, but they coordinate the efforts of all of those. They ensure the product has a coherent vision and that it aligns with the company’s larger strategy.

Similarly, it seems that Jones, Stout, and the ACPDOs could help the engineers do their jobs, the planners do their jobs, the traffic signal timing experts do theirs, etc. while ensuring that all of those efforts are aligned with the agency’s goals.

Of course, this structure wouldn’t give us good projects if the agency director doesn’t have the right priorities, which means ensuring that whenever there’s a change in mayor or agency director, that person prioritizes DC’s goals as set out in MoveDC, Sustainable DC, and other plans, particularly the goal of reaching 50% of trips being by transit and 25% by walk and bike, which means fewer by car. Most if not all top DDOT executives currently support these goals, but that could always change.

Meanwhile, hiring a bicycle advocate and setting up a team to help her keep the agency on track seems promising. We’ll need to watch and give encouragement and, when needed, critiques as this new setup evolves.

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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.