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Rantz: As traffic gets worse, what happened to Seattle’s traffic czar?

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Seattle traffic is getting worse and the highly-paid traffic czar seems nowhere to be found.

Earlier this year, Air Force Maj. Gen. Mike Worden was tapped to coordinate Seattle’s effort to mitigate the “Seattle squeeze” and it came with a significant $195,000 salary. His position (director of mobility operations coordination) was created by Mayor Jenny Durkan after he didn’t land the job to head the Seattle Department of Transportation.

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But as traffic has gotten worse, what exactly has Worden been doing? He’s certainly (and bizarrely) not been a public-facing official, with KIRO Radio’s purveyor of all-things traffic, Chris Sullivan, needing me to remind him about who Worden even is.

Worden’s office declined my interview request with him (no doubt he’s busy doing … something?) but offered a lengthy statement that reads more like a press release. It’s been sent to other media outlets, suggesting others are also asking about what Worden actually does.

I’m assured that Worden’s “most recent work has focused on implementing citywide process improvements to better address traffic incidents.” The city cited the study over the notorious fishgate saga, where an overturned truck of frozen fish grinding Seattle traffic to a standstill. The study offered a bunch of recommendations. Worden is “moving forward on a strategic plan to implement those recommendations…”

It’s unclear how this is any different than the incident-response teams that were already created in 2018 to address this issue. It’s also unclear to me how his job is any different than the job done by Heather Marx — which comes with a similar title of director of mobility.

Worden also has the daunting task of riding “buses, light rail, or the Sounder to talk to transit drivers and riders.” So, in other words, most of his day is wasted waiting for perpetually tardy buses. Sounds like a good use of his time.

For nearly $200,000 a year, it seems like Worden should be more public-facing and open to media scrutiny. Marx is one of the usual faces of the city’s efforts. She takes questions; Worden doesn’t. The city did not respond to my request to explain how her job is substantively different than Worden’s.

There was concern, at the time of his appointment, that Durkan gave Worden a cush job because she happened to like him, even if there wasn’t really use for him. After all, he’s not a local, but was expected to adequately tackle a worsening, Seattle traffic problem where you should probably be intimately familiar with local patterns. It seems weird that city officials made such a huge deal about his job, but since then, have been suspiciously quiet.

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I suspect a longform interview (or even shortform) would reveal he’s not as involved, or effective, as he should be, given his salary. They don’t have to have him talk with me; have him literally talk to any talk show host or journalist to discuss, in detail, exactly what it is he does.

Here’s the full statement/press release:

As Director of Citywide Mobility Operations Coordination, Mike’s most recent work has focused on implementing citywide process improvements to better address traffic incidents. Addressing the Seattle Squeeze is a multi-year challenge, and one key step to navigating the Seattle Squeeze and beyond is minimizing the impact of traffic incidents. An analysis of the 2015 fish truck incident resulted in 114 recommendations for process improvements, of which 30 recommendations are in the process of being addressed by Director Worden. Director Worden is moving forward on a strategic plan to implement those recommendations, as well as incorporate new federal guidance on traffic management.

As you know, the City – especially SDOT, SFD, and SPD – play a critical role on any incidents that may occur not only on city streets but on key roads such as SR99, I-50 and I-90. In February during Friday rush hour, Seattle Fire responded to an incident on I-5 underneath an overpass, which could have led to hours of delay. This required coordination with all our transit partners, SDOT, SPD, SFD, FAS, and state partners. The City will continually work to improve our response but here was the briefing he gave to Council on the incident:

Director Worden manages the Traffic Incident Management and Congestion Management program, which is a cross-department, City-wide coordination effort. This work is happening in coordination with the regional Seattle Area Congestion Management Joint Operations Working Group to implement region-wide process improvements.  As you may know, The Seattle Area Joint Operations Group (SAJOG) is a partnership, formally established in March 2018, bringing together WSDOT; SDOT; WSP; SPD; SFD; and KC Metro. Joining together in information sharing and response on major incidents, the SAJOG approach enhances congestion management. The effort is supported by the University of Washington and Challenge Seattle consortium. Director Worden, through his role as a member of SAJOG is working with the State to apply for Federal funding to support regional congestion management work.

Mike also continues his day-to-day responsibilities of real-time, cross-City data monitoring—including preparing weekly briefings on the Seattle Squeeze to the Mayor—and strategic planning for additional upcoming phases of the Squeeze such as tolling.

Additionally Mike rides buses, light rail, or the sounder to talk to transit drivers and riders. Sometimes Mike goes to traffic pinch points or other points of observation to watch traffic, incident responses, traffic clearing, traffic officers, etc.  When there is an incident, Director Worden often goes to see response in person, sometimes hitching a ride with a responder. If required, Director Worden corrects response protocols on the spot unless there is a serious unresolved trend which needs to be elevated.

Does this seem legitimate? Am I being unfair?

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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