What should Seattle seek in SDOT’s next director?
Seattle is shopping for a new director of transportation. But before it goes to the municipal store, the city is checking with residents to see if they want anything specific in the next hire.
“With a number of significant projects in the pipeline, our next SDOT leader must be ready to deliver on investments and protect taxpayer dollars,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. “Our residents and businesses expect our officials to make progress and deliver results, and this administration will continue to be accountable to the people we serve.”
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Since it’s asking, Seattle might want to focus on money management; a factor that isn’t prominent on the survey it is currently conducting. Aside from gauging some demographics of participants, the city asks what residents feel the top transportation priorities should be; what changes a new leader should bring; and any issues the review committee should consider.
What seems minimal on the survey is fiscal responsibility. Survey participants can choose three qualities, out of 12, they want in a new SDOT director, including: a record of community-led problem solving; climate change and emergency preparedness; demonstrated ability to be a listener; commitment to a multi-modal transportation system for Seattle.
Only two qualities on the survey — “has overseen large capital and operating budgets” and “has led the delivery of major capital transportation projects” — deal with managing transportation funds.
SDOT and an over budget record
Seattle is currently recovering from a series of over budget projects. It was discovered in March that it costs far more than previously understood just to operate Seattle’s streetcar — double. Then it was revealed that downtown’s streetcar extension project was grossly over budget — initially $150 million, but updated to more than $200 million.
New bike lanes for Seattle were initially estimated at $860,000 per mile. But as city officials found out in April, the price tag is more like $12 million. The bike lane money was coming from funds provided through 2015’s voter-approved Move Seattle levy, among the largest in the city’s history.
This was all after Seattle dabbled with a bikeshare system called Pronto! which began in October 2014 (the perfect time of year to start biking). The city wasn’t entirely in charge of its creation, but it did spend considerably on the failed system. SDOT gave Pronto! $305,000 — behind the council’s back — between 2015 and 2016 to keep it afloat as the venture was sinking. The city eventually bailed Pronto! out for $1.4 million in March 2016 and absorbed it into SDOT — before shutting it down at the start of 2017.
Granted, there are a lot of city departments and moving parts involved in any project. But this transportation trend of financial flops all seemed to have occurred under SDOT’s (and the city’s) previous leadership. Former SDOT Director Scott Kubly came onto the job in 2014 and left in January 2018. New Mayor Jenny Durkan came into office around the time of his exit.
Keeping climate change in mind as the city manages its transportation system is a worthwhile policy. But perhaps a greater emphasis on financial management would save Seattle further problems, and money.