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What Seattle needs from the next SDOT Director + Take the mayor’s survey

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a national search for the next SDOT Director this week. Interim Director Goran Sparrman will serve in the role through the end of August.

The Mayor’s Office is collecting feedback through an online survey, saying that survey results will guide the candidate interview questions. It’s also a chance for you to think about what you want most from an SDOT Director.

The job could be a pretty tough sell because it might be nearly impossible. Buses are getting kicked out of the downtown transit tunnel next year, and current leadership seems to be bailing on bold plans to get downtown ready. So unless city and transit agency leaders get big plans in the works ASAP, the next director will be walking into a downtown transit crisis.

On top that that monster of a challenge, SDOT is in turmoil. Perhaps the simplest way to put it is that the Move Seattle levy has put more money and more responsibilities on the department than it was prepared to handle. Big projects are spinning out of control, and leadership is already preparing the public for disappointment as they try to walk back many promises to voters for bold walking, biking and transit improvements.

The way I see it, there are two strategies for a new leader to deal with this situation:

  1. Dramatically water down or cut promised projects, blaming previous leadership for the disappointment. The result would be worse traffic, slower buses stuck in that traffic and the same rate of serious injuries and deaths due to traffic collisions.
  2. Be bold and creative about how the department delivers projects to fulfill promises made to voters in 2015. Maybe the funds aren’t there to do full street rebuilds, but there are lower-cost ways to give buses priority, build bike lanes and improve crosswalks without significantly watering down their effectiveness.

Perhaps this sounds like a lot to put on one person’s shoulders. But the good news is that they have help. SDOT has some amazing people on staff who know how to do a lot with limited resources. The Safe Routes to School, Bicycle Program and Road Safety Corridor teams, for example, have done some amazing things with very limited budgets. They need a leader who will challenge them and trust them. Staffers doing bold work need to know the Director will have their backs. That’s how to boost morale and create great work.

It often seems like the higher the budget, the more disappointing the outcome is for SDOT projects (I’m looking at you, Mercer Street). A lo-fi revamping of Move Seattle could end up even better than the major capital project version.

Most importantly, the next SDOT Director needs to believe in the walking, biking and transit vision in the city’s many transportation plans already developed with public input and approved by City Council. Seattle has some of the best transportation plans in the nation. What we need is a leader who can deliver the vision outlined on those pages.

The key to making all this work is an SDOT leader the public can believe in so people trust the department when a bold change is proposed near their homes and workplaces. SDOT somehow spends too much time and money on public outreach while simultaneously failing to properly communicate the value of projects to nearby communities. The department’s next leader needs to know how to inspire.

What we don’t need is someone blinded by the car windshield perspective that dominates so many DOTs around the country. The size of the projects the candidate has managed is less important than the impact of those projects. Someone who has led amazing community-level projects would be better than someone who has overseen huge freeway projects.

So, uh, no pressure finding the absolute perfect person to take this nearly impossible job, Mayor Durkan!

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3 responses to “What Seattle needs from the next SDOT Director + Take the mayor’s survey”

  1. That “two strategies” bit, from where I sit (i.e. nowhere important) is the truest overarching thing I’ve read about transportation in Seattle. Bravo.

  2. Conrad

    Agreed that the next SDOT director is walking into a shitfire. So it is a perfect opportunity to remind everyone that for better or for worse, Seattle is a real city now, and there is not one example of a real city in which cars are an efficient way to get around. Its time to focus on feet, bikes, and transit. When population density reaches a certain point, there is just no way for everyone to have their own 50 square foot box to move around in. When the drivers howl, politely remind them of this fact. Unless you can make all these people move away, the drivers are going to hate you no matter what.

  3. squints

    Two words: Congestion pricing. We need to charge people to drive downtown, and that includes South Lake Union. Hire someone who can figure out how to make it happen.

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