By Dean A. Radford
Joni Earl has a simple motto:
Under promise and over deliver.
Failure to follow that recipe for success is what got her agency, Sound Transit, in trouble before she took over as chief executive officer in 2001.
Earl found an agency with a billion-dollar cost overrun because it had no way to track its finances and was promising projects it couldn’t deliver.
Earl brought to bear her expertise in finance and local government in reshaping the culture of an agency that was pretty good at managing and designing bus and commuter rail projects, but derailed when it came to running its basic business operations.
Of course, that work was done in tandem with the Sound Transit Board of Directors, a point Earl repeatedly made in an interview with Reporter Newspapers recently.
Earl, with her gift for communication and her willingness to be brutally honest about what her agency was doing wrong – and right – can now look back on her nearly 10 years at the helm and marvel at the 14 miles of Link light rail snaking from Seattle to nearly Sea-Tac Airport.
With the opening of Link light rail, Sound Transit today is now operating the three pieces of its voter-mandated transit system – commuter rail, light rail and a regional bus system in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
But her work – and Sound Transit’s – is far from done. There are billions of new tax dollars to be spent to extend light rail to Bellevue and beyond and add 10s of thousands of hours of new regional bus service.
The agency will draw on its years of experience planning, designing and then building Link, which opened in July, to work with Eastside community and business leaders to build from scratch East Link, which when done will link downtown Seattle with the Overlake Transit Center between Bellevue and Redmond.
Of course, along the way, it will pass through downtown Bellevue. City officials and business leaders want a tunnel for light rail to ease impact on businesses and downtown traffic. But that’s the most expensive option for building light rail and Sound Transit doesn’t have enough money to build it, based on the taxes voters approved for Sound Transit 2.
Bellevue and Sound Transit will continue to debate the tunnel. A final alignment will be picked this year.
A tunnel is not totally out of the realm of possibility. But Bellevue would have to help pay for it. It’s another one of Earl’s guiding principles to keep Sound Transit financially healthy and credible as a government agency.
“Even if someone really really wants something, we aren’t going to promise something if I can’t find a financial path to make it happen,” she said in the interview. That path would lead to Bellevue’s budget office.
“That’s how Sound Transit lost its credibility, I think,” she said, by not realizing the depth of the financial trouble it faced in the early years and not being open about that problem.
“Those days are over, at least on my watch,” she said.
Today, Sound Transit is fresh off the start of Central Link and commuter trains through the Green River Valley are pulling cars off the Interstate 5 corridor between Tacoma and Seattle.
In 20 years, Bellevue will have its own light rail and South King County will have thousands of hours of new bus service and even more commuter trains running up and down the Green River Valley.
But will we have left our cars behind to travel on a seamless regional transportation system of interlocking rail and bus routes? Probably not. And that’s not a realistic goal anyway, says Earl, because someone will always need a car to get to work. But she’s seeing a shift away from total reliance on a car.
“I meet more and more people now who tell me they got rid of a second car because of how much transit is out there,” said.
But Sound Transit will tempt commuters with convenient options for travel and continue to refine, along with King County Metro, the region’s bus routes to make them more efficient.
Dean A. Radford is the Editor of the Renton Reporter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Dean A. Radford