No fuss, no muss

Peter Hahn Credit: 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.

Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who chairs the transportation committee, said Hahn’s experience looks very relevant to managing the department and relating to the state. Rasmussen hopes to have the city council approve the appointment by the end of February.

Royer said he hoped the council had received an advance briefing. Rasmussen said there was nothing more than a heads-up right before the announcement, but that wouldn’t pose any confirmation issue. McGinn was passing through the council offices, Rasmussen said, so Rasmussen asked how the mayor made the decision. Basically, as Rasmussen recalls it, McGinn’s response was: Well, I heard about him and I talked to him. And he seemed qualified. Rasmussen said of the brief conversation with McGinn, “That was about it … in a friendly way.”

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