That Seattle Squeeze.
That Seattle Squeeze. River North Photography / Getty

Why any person wants to become Seattle’s human punching bag for the foreseeable future as head of the Department of Transportation during the Period of Maximum Oh Shit Constraint is a mystery. But we should consider ourselves blessed that newly nominated SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe must be a masochist as much as he is an urban mobility genius.

Mayor Durkan announced her pick for the long overdue job on Tuesday. Pending city council approval, Zimbabwe will make the leap from the other Washington, where he has been head of project delivery in DC’s transit shop for seven years. And he will land right in the middle of Seattle’s impending transportation nightmare scenario: the so-called Seattle Squeeze, or the cascading overlap of umpteen infrastructure projects in the two-year period before Link light rail’s Northgate extension opens.

Roll call, please: The Alaska Way Viaduct closes to traffic on January 11. The new Alaska Way Tunnel opens on February 2. The Washington State Convention Center expansion is underway and will boot 600 buses out of the Downtown Transit Tunnel on March 23. Rainier Square Tower, soon to be our second tallest building, is under construction downtown. Colman Dock, currently under repair, won’t finish until next summer. And there’s probably a new Amazon moonscraper slated to straddle Denny Way currently in the permitting process that we don’t even know about, but it will be breaking ground tomorrow.

Zimbabwe is an affable 40-year-old who beat out two other candidates (h/t Crosscut for the scoop). Props to the mayor for poaching top talent from another city with a similar demographic profile, albeit a vastly different geography and a checkered past with mass transit. While the Lesser Seattle crowd will crow, the hire is proof that Seattle’s boom has made us attractive to aspirational public servants and not just aspirational software engineers. Corporations headhunt all the time in the service of plundering the planet; city government should absolutely do the same in the service of making our city better.

The question is, of course, will Zimbabwe make Seattle transportation better? Will he have the balls—and backing from an “impatient mayor” keen to deliver—to plunge ahead with our city’s transition from a mostly car-dependent town that believed it could squeak by with an all-bus system into the multimodal mecca to which Durkan gives lip service? Or will politics and process lead to more half-assed efforts, like our RapidRide buses that lay awake at night in their depots wishing they had enough dedicated lane space to call themselves true bus rapid transit?

Before we pin all of our transit fever dreams on Zimbabwe, though, remember SDOT only controls so much. Sound Transit is in charge of delivering Link—the real savior to all of our woes, mind you, but at this point the 20-year plan is largely set in stone—and King County Metro runs your daily bus.

But Zimbabwe will definitely have one ace card or albatross around his neck, depending on how the next few years shake out. The $250-million-dollar SDOT question is the Seattle Streetcar, which could easily turn from beleaguered to beloved if it goes from half-assed to full-assed by building the Center City Connector along 1st Avenue and banishing cars from most of its route. Then the haters would have to swallow their pride and watch as it glides through the city connecting a string of core neighborhoods, and yes, turbocharging real estate development in its wake (I concur that streetcars are as much about economic development as they are about moving people).

I interviewed Mayor Durkan in September and she hinted that the streetcar question is more complex than a thumbs up or down, mentioning Expedia’s move to Interbay and the soon-to-take-the-ice Seattle Kraken Sockeyes Totems TBDs. That hedging makes me wonder if Durkan has a transportation mega-project up her sleeve and she has hired Zimbabwe—ahem, Chief Project Delivery Officer in DC—to deliver it once some of the Seattle Squeeze dust settles. It could be the carrot to her eventual congestional pricing stick, though that’s a thwack that will hurt so good because it will truly curtail downtown driving during business hours.

In the meantime, SDOT does control the quotidian aspects of daily transportation and has a pot of our taxpayer money, the Move Seattle Levy, with which to pay for it: how fast the light cycles move, do crosswalks get all-way signals, where to paint bike and bus-only lanes, which unused strips of asphalt should become mini plazas? There, it sounds like Zimbabwe did not cater exclusively to any one constituency in DC while also, crucially, not pissing anyone off—his exit report card from DC contains glowing reviews.

Zimbabwe told the Seattle Times that in DC, he alternates between hopping the Metro and riding his bike to work, and that life with children necessitates the occasional car trip. A working professional with a young family living a car-lite lifestyle reflects a lot of Seattle’s demographic these days and that, ultimately, bodes well. At the end of Zimbabwe’s tenure, neither the MASS coalition nor Jason Rantz will be happy. But that’s the nature of compromise and we’ll be better off for it provided Zimbabwe gets shit done.