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No fuss, no muss

Mayor McGinn quickly picks his person for the key position of transportation director. Peter Hahn is a curious choice, but early reaction is polite to encouraging.
Peter Hahn

Peter Hahn Courtesy City of Seattle

Newbie Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s pick of a new transportation director continues his pattern of being unpredictable and unconventional. The choice of Peter Hahn came quickly, out of the suburbs, and with none of the national search often preceding such a critical appointment. It remains to be seen whether tapping Hahn from Renton’s public works department puts the new city mayor "ahead of the curve," as the King County suburb likes to fashion itself, or deeper in the S-curves of local transportation gridlock.

Early reviews from various parts of the transportation spectrum are cautious but optimistic. Apparently McGinn hasn’t stepped off the curb awkwardly.

McGinn’s campaign emphasis on transportation, the environment, and urban livability all make this choice especially important. In choosing not to keep Grace Crunican, who says she made her own decision to leave, McGinn lost a Seattle Department of Transportation director with a considerably larger national presence and résumé than Hahn. The new director’s age, 65, also raised the immediate question of whether McGinn had moved quickly only to settle indecisively on a caretaker appointment.

But Hahn could represent considerably more — someone broadly experienced in his field who shares mayoral and public values on making transportation work for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders as well as auto drivers. While not as high profile as Crunican, Hahn has strong and steady administrative credentials. His regional experience in Snohomish County and Renton could be a boost to a city with a history of not playing well with others within King County, around Puget Sound, and in Olympia.

Shadowing any McGinn move on transportation is the question of whether he will fight the state-approved tunnel project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Hahn’s clean-slate background there gives hope to both sides. Hahn’s spouse, Futurewise board member Mary McCumber, strongly supported a rival surface-and-transit, tunnel-free plan. But Hahn’s own record seems to be more as a practical, experienced administrator than someone who would be particularly ideological, one way or the other. He'll need that experience, stepping into a department with 750 employees and a budget of $310 million.

In Renton, Hahn was a deputy public works administrator since 2006, with responsibility on transportation projects that sound like the McGinn playbook: a master plan for trails and bikes; coordination with Sound Transit on new bus rapid transit; and work on a 68-acre urban village development. Perhaps more relevant to the challenge of running SDOT, he served as director of public works in Snohomish County, with responsibility over a similarly sized transportation-oriented agency. He had an excellent reputation, serving for a long time under former County Executive Bob Drewel, who emphasized top-flight management.

Former Mayor Charles Royer, a waterfront tunnel supporter, said he wasn’t familiar with Hahn, but he was impressed that McGinn moved so quickly. “I do think that is to be admired,” Royer said.

Royer’s first impression was that Hahn might be something of an interim appointment, but he said that quickly faded as he learned more. The main things, he said, are that McGinn was quick to pick someone who has experience enough to be a steady hand.

Tayloe Washburn, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s point person in support of the tunnel, said he liked the selection of someone with deep experience. “By all accounts, he is a well-qualified and solid person in the transportation business. And I think that is very reassuring for all concerned.” In a reference to the controversies that can swirl around SDOT even in the absence of snow, Washburn added, “It is a really good thing in a rough and tumble jurisdiction to have someone experienced, who knows how to process all the noise and excitement.”

Tunnel supporters, to be sure, have reasons to try to keep the new mayor, who took a strong stand against the project in the 2008 primary campaign (later moving to saying he would support the city's decision to go ahead with the tunnel), from getting backed into a corner where he feels he needs to fight the plan again. In contrast, Cary Moon of the People’s Waterfront Coalition would like to see renewed discussion of the tunnel’s merit. But she shares at least cautious optimism about the Hahn appointment.

For Moon, who is a huge Crunican fan, that’s a leap. Moon conceded she would have expected a national search to fill the spot of the capable Crunican. While she doesn’t know Hahn, Moon said she respects his wife, McCumber, “more than any other person in the universe. So, I have high hopes for Peter.”

She said Hahn’s interest in smarter forms of transportation and development could make him someone who can both work with other parts of city government and help McGinn create a larger vision of changes for Seattle. Plus, she said, Hahn’s experience in management and with various parts of the region seem to suggest a political intelligence that could be useful in working with the state.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jan 8, 11:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Joe - my experience is that Peter is thoughtful, experienced, pragmatic and practical. He's good at policy - and sand trucks!

Also, good to see YOU back in the saddle.

Ross Kane
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Fri, Jan 8, 11:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Few things could serve Seattle better than replacing Grace Crunican. Her record as chief of Oregon DOT included her curt dismissal of pedestrian/bicycling concerns regarding the Ross Island Bridge rebuild project. She refused to follow ADA and State guidelines. Shortly after its completion she resigned amidst public outcry. The bridge spans the Willamette River between two fully developed Portland neighborhoods. Crunican's disinterest put pedestrians and bicyclists in mortal danger. Now, only the daring use the 3/4 mile bridge sidewalk despite its fantastic view.

I believe Grace Crunican pulled the wool over Cary Moon's eyes. Crunican's approved design for the new Alaskan Way must be questioned. It portends to accommodate Ballard-bound traffic (some 40,000 vehicles daily) that the Deep-bore tunnel cannot without the Elliott/Western access ramps to SR99. However, it's doubtful a 4-lane or even a 6-lane Alaskan Way boulevard is adequate. Both are bound to produce bumper-to-bumper gridlock all day long.

Prior to Crunican taking the job, early WSDOT designs for Alaskan Way included a frontage road necessary to divide thru-traffic from motorists looking to park. I believe the "Wide Plaza" is a ruse Crunican concocted to endear naive environmentalists and hide her actual intent that it eventually include makeshift and permanent parking lots, just like San Francisco's Embarcadero. Crunican planned to double-cross everyone.

The "Mercer West" project is equally offensive. Turning Mercer Street into a thru-corridor between Elliott and Aurora for who knows how many thousands of cars and trucks to access the Deep-bore north portal (and on to I-5) is outrageous. The Deep-bore tunnel project is an atrocious fiasco.

Crunican did her worst in Seattle. And I suspect WSDOT department heads and certain business leaders worked closely with her to do Seattle over cruelly. At some point incompetence becomes so glaring, corruption cannot be ruled out. The only viable tunnel is WSDOT's Scenario 'G' 4-lane Cut-n-cover, known as 'Tunnelite' in the 2007 vote, not sufficiently vetted then to put before voters. WSDOT gambled the elevated monstrosity would be approved. Peter Hahn will battle corruption.

Wells

Posted Fri, Jan 8, 12:24 p.m. Inappropriate

McGuinn’s appointment of Peter Hahn as the new transportation chief may or may not be an answer to the bungling administration of departing Grace Crunican. Joe Copelands story does what most failing newspapers in Seattle do. He writes a nice story, but quotes none of the people who really count. The public and small business. He doesn’t inquire into the real reasons why Seattle Transportation Department is a mess. Instead Copeland spins his rolodex and quotes the usual suspects involved in transportation reform. Mary McCumber of Futurewise, Former Mayor Charles Royer, Tayloe Washburn Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Cary Moon of the Peoples Waterfront Coalition all of whom represent very narrow interests that have nothing to do with tending the maintenance of existing highways and safety of Seattle’s ability to move people, and the goods of commerce. It is even likely each of these sources would close all roads and ban anything with 4 wheels if they could.

It wasn’t just snow that brought Crunican’s department to shame, it was the gross failure to administer the divisions under her administration. Seattle has nearly a billion dollars of deferred maintenance in bridges and roadways. Major arterials are left in disrepair while budget allocations are shifted to beautification projects or projects whose cost benefit to the local economy don’t pencil out. Traffic circles, bike lanes and new medians in roadways that reduce capacity may well be worthwhile additions to Seattle’s overall transportation needs, but to allow and entire network of existing roads to fail for lack of maintenance is inexcusable.

Quixote

Posted Fri, Jan 8, 12:29 p.m. Inappropriate

At last count, 67% of Seattle residents commute by car (and 56% of them are in single-occupant vehicles).

Bikes? A whopping 2.5%. You could triple that figure and it would still be negligible.

Posted Fri, Jan 8, 1:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Pointing out Mr. Hahn's age is irrelevant, no more so than pointing out the McGinn is fat. Both of them could kick off at any time.

Ms. Crunican may have a showhorse resume but it sound like Mr. Hahn is more of a workhorse.

As city resident's we all want potholes filled and roads cleared from snow. To paraphrase the Jon Lovitz's impression of Harvey Fierstein from SNL way back when, "Is that soooo wahrong!?"

Posted Fri, Jan 8, 2:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Nice to see Joe back but I am wondering why some of the writers with transportation expertise did not write this story. And why the Rasmussen whimsical ending? You guys are trying to start a fight, I think...

Posted Sat, Jan 9, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

It is difficult to imagine McGinn making a better choice than Peter Hahn for this job. Hahn is a no nonsense manager, has the respect of his peers throughout the region, has all the right experience, and will be inclined to focus on the right priorities: all the things that relate to the city's bridges and streets.

This appears to be one of a series of smart hires aimed at shoring up the the things that are not McGinn's strengths.

Jan

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