Sam Zimbabwe is Mayor Jenny Durkan's pick to lead SDOT. He still requires city council approval.
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Sam Zimbabwe is Mayor Jenny Durkan's pick to lead SDOT. He still requires city council approval.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

He helped rescue a troubled streetcar project in D.C. Could he do it here, too?

It’s been a year since the last permanent director of Seattle’s transportation department left. He left behind a streetcar project that’s now in trouble.

Backers say the mayor’s new pick to lead SDOT, Sam Zimbabwe, had a role rescuing a similar streetcar project in Washington, D.C.

Zimbabwe comes to Seattle in its darkest hour. The city will soon plunge into what transportation planners call "the period of maximum constraint," when the Alaskan Way Viaduct gets demolished and the new tunnel is not yet open for traffic.

In D.C., he was known for overcoming constraints. “We’ve managed to get some projects that were stuck — for a variety of means — unstuck, and are now at the point of being built,” he said.

As to his style, Zimbabwe focused on a multi-modal approach to transportation, offering his own commute to work in D.C. as an example: Most days, he takes the subway. A couple days a week, he rides a bike. And when his kids' schedules require it, he drives.

Betty Spieth-Croll is a member of the selection committee. She said she liked Zimbabwe's ability to get projects going. As an example, she mentioned his role in reviving a troubled D.C. streetcar project.

“He was part of the team that got that up and going and it’s running now,” she said.

Zimbabwe wasn't willing to render judgement on Seattle's streetcar, yet.

"I think the streetcar has been useful in the District of Columbia, but it's a transit mode that has context to it," he said. He added that he still needs to catch up on the details regarding Seattle's version.

The City Council will decide whether to confirm him.

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