Denver Is 1 to 2 Years Out From Having a Department of Transportation. Who Will Lead it?

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

It’s been nearly four months since Mayor Michael Hancock announced his plan to break transportation out of Denver Public Works. The move could have profound effects on the pace and scope of change to city streets, which is necessary to move the needle on car dependence by prioritizing walking, biking, and transit.

So where are we?

According to Denver Chief Performance Officer David Edinger, the city is between one and two years from fully elevating transportation to a cabinet-level department. First Hancock has to replace Jose Cornejo, who stepped down as director of DPW in February. The new director will oversee the separation and could lead one of the two organizations when it’s complete.

The city is “very close” to appointing a new director, Edinger said during a meeting of the Denver City Council’s Mobility and Transportation Task Force on Wednesday. A handful of candidates remain, he said, and will go through final interviews with the mayor over the next few weeks.

The search has focused on candidates with “change management, transformational kinds of experience,” Edinger said. “It turns out that all of the candidates we have in the mix right now all have a transportation-mobility background, but that wasn’t one of the pre-ordained criteria in terms of necessity.”

While some candidates are local, none work in city government.

Transportation deeply affects the economy, housing, cost of living, and the environment, which requires a leader willing to take risks, according to Jefferey Tumlin, who oversaw the same separation process in Oakland. Transport decisions should be made at the top tiers of government — unlike wastewater decisions, for example, an essential public works function that requires management expertise, but not so much in terms of policy expertise.

“The kind of leader you need to separate these two things might be different than the kind of leader you need for after they’re separated,” said City Councilman Jolon Clark. “If we’re really hiring them for the job now, which includes stormwater and solid waste and this separation, are we gonna hire the wrong person for two years form now when we need a dynamic leader who really is the king of mobility?”

Current Director of Transportation and Mobility Crissy Fanganello will presumably be in the mix. And it’s not a certainty that the new DPW director will helm either department after the separation, Edinger said.

The new department will require a charter change, which will require a public vote once the reorganization is in place.