Q&A: Joni Earl, CEO of Sound Transit

"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." - Joni Earl

"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." - Joni Earl

By Dean A. Radford
Reporter Newspapers
Joni Earl, CEO of Sound Transit, talked in a wide-ranging interview with the Reporter Newspapers recently about the regional transportation agency whose mission it is to build an interlocking system of light rail, commuter rail and long-haul buses. In its early years, there was doubt that Sound Transit would even survive. One of Earl’s first tasks was to announce that the agency was $1 billion in the hole. But under Earl’s leadership, that has all changed. Today, the agency is planning a new transit corridor to the Eastside that could change the way people commute to Seattle and back again for decades to come.

What was the state of the agency when you took over in early 2001?
I started in October 2000 as chief operating officer. I had been with the agency about three weeks when it was clear that we had a cost problem. But we didn’t know how big it was. I was put in charge as the new eyes and ears in the agency to look at the project. I was the one, with consultant help and a lot of staff help, that about six or seven weeks later announced the $1 billion cost overrun and the three-year-schedule delay. That was in December. Bob [Bob White, the agency's executive director] left after we got the $500 million grant from the Clinton administration. He then resigned at the next board meeting and I was appointed acting. My view of the state of the agency at that point was we had lost credibility with the public. Pretty major credibility. The Board of Directors was angry because they put themselves out there in support of the agency and the project. They were really disappointed because they would say they were not getting the information to know they had that deep of a problem. The Federal Transit Administration, which was the funding agency for the grant, was very angry. Our senior senator, Patty Murray, wasn’t very happy with us. Employee morale was quite bad, to say the least. But two things held true through it all that helped us. The vision for light rail was the sustaining issue. People were mad at Sound Transit, but they still supported light rail. The vision to get light rail in the region was never lost. Never. None of the polling. What I was asked to do was to take the steps necessary to save the project and rebuild the agency.

What were your initial marching orders to get the project back on track?
When the board talked with me about the acting position, I knew enough at that point that we needed a new cost-estimating system. We needed a new project-control system. We needed a way to track costs accumulatively to know what was happening on our project, because that is what had gone wrong. I needed to make a few personnel changes. I had to rebuild the federal government trust that Sound Transit could deliver the project. One of the major tests for the federal government is what they call technical and financial capability capacity. So, we ended up having a two-year audit starting right at that point by the U.S. inspector general. What I tried to do and I think collectively we did it together because I had very strong board leadership and support was to take the internal steps we needed to take to shore up our costs and our systems to manage these projects.

What did you tell your employees?
One of the reasons morale was so bad is that we had just started commuter rail in September 2000. The commuter rail part of the agency was flying high. We had started the bus program in 1999. So two-thirds of the agency, since we do much more than light rail, were delivering. And then here’s the biggest part of the project for the agency was the one that was taking us down. That was very difficult internal morale issues that we had to work through. My message to the employees and perhaps one of my greatest strengths I brought internal to the agency is that I am a big communicator. Whether it was to pull all employees together for a quick all staff or e-mails. I was very clear with the employees that if they would do their jobs, you perform, I will deal with the external and the politics of the board and all of those issues. Here is my expectation. I was very clear with my directors about being transparent with information. It doesn’t matter how bad the story is. We have to fix it. I told employees in a meeting with 150 employees that nobody would get fired for pointing out problems or issues or making errors (unless they made a whole bunch of them over and over). But they would get fired if they withheld information because we couldn’t fix something that we didn’t know existed. That is kind of what had happened at the 10,000-foot level.

So what had to happen next?
There was no silver lining to getting our credibility back with the public, other than start delivering the project. Pass the test. Pass the audits, which we did. But it took awhile. Get the feds to have confidence in us. When they have the confidence in us, we get the federal share. If we have the federal share, we can build the project. The other big piece in 2001 was the board made the decision after we did all the analysis to break the project into segments. Just opening the 14 miles. Then the airport in December. Then the university. That was all one big mega project. We were a startup. We were a brand new agency. Nobody really thought about what it takes when you are a new bureaucracy. Everything was new. There was a new HR system. You have to hire people. You have to have office space. You have to have telephones, computers. They didn’t have any of that. And they had a new 10-year plan to build $4 billion of capital in 10 years. Three new lines of service. We are the only agency in the country that I am aware of that was supposed to go from zero to a $4 billion program in 10 years and deliver service all over a three-county region. It had never been tried before.

How did Sound Transit get to the point where it was in a billion-dollar hole and already behind when it hoped to begin light rail service?
There were three fundamental problems. They just didn’t have the infrastructure in place to track costs. Real estate values were going up on the capital side. The real estate people might know it. They didn’t have a good project-control system in a state-of-the-art way to track costs. The second problem was that you had a situation where you are out talking to communities and there wasn’t what we call really good scope control. You would go out to one community and they would want a, b, c or d. You have all this money. You don’t have a good tracking system. You want to please the community or please the city you’re trying to build a project in because you have to get permits. I know the agency didn’t manage the scope of the project well in those early decisions. More things were promised than there was money in the budget to do. But nobody realized it because we didn’t have a good tracking system. The third thing was the agency had a lot of really good transit people and good engineers. What they didn’t have was someone who had run the organization part of the organization. Bob White [Earl's predecessor as executive director], to his credit came to that realization. He created the chief operating officer position. I had no transit background. I had local government background. I had run things as a city manager and deputy executive [Snohomish County]. My background is finance and accounting. I didn’t have transit experience. When he hired me, he said, “I have a lot of transit planners. I have people who know how to build projects. I need someone who knows how to run the agency in terms of the business of the agency, while others are planning and building projects.” There was no fraud. There was just a series of coming together with a really aggressive plan with really good people who didn’t have the basic infrastructure they needed to go about it.

In all the darkest days, did you ever think this isn’t worth it, that I am going to quit.
It is hard to go back to that time, although so much of it is very vivid for me. I went for literally a five-month period where I had no day off, not a Saturday or not a Sunday. My average day was 18 hours. I had five days where I never went home. There were 24-hour days when I just called my husband to bring me clothes. Sure during that time in the wee dark hours of the night, and there were other people on the staff who were working with me side by side. So there were times when I asked, What am I doing? I had never been tested like this before. I didn’t know if I had the capacity or capability to do this. For me what really stood out is I knew from the day I started here and from the people here at the agency that we had really good people here. We had a strong board that really believed in our mission. I was in a good place in that I didn’t own the problem. I didn’t create the problem. That gives you a little bit of freedom to make really hard decisions. To make personnel decisions. Or just say this is how it’s going to be. We don’t have time. We are just going to do it. You have a little bit of freedom in that circumstance. I had to go back to Congress to testify. I had a hostile chair. Congressman Norm Dicks went with me. He introduced me to the chair. He sat next to me for an hour and a half while I got peppered with questions just to support me. Sen. [Patty] Murray was just amazing support. So I just felt really good people put a lot on the line and I wanted to help them deliver it. I think for the region we needed the project. At that point it took us 30 years from Forward Thrust to get to this point. And failure had such consequence for the future of this region.

Why did it take so long for the region to come an agreement on high-capacity transit and start building?
We the region, whoever the region is, going back to Forward Thrust had a vision about the need to do high-capacity transit. But it always feels very expensive on a project basis. Out of the personal taxpayer’s pocket, it’s a pretty high investment for some people. Cost has been an issue. But we also have had wars over the years of roads vs. transit, bus vs. rail, light rail vs. monorail or vs. commuter rail. We love to debate issues. Bob White used to call it that you are constantly talking to a parade. You will start a conversation in year one. By the time you get to year five, there are new people who have joined the parade. There wasn’t from I could tell until the early 90s, after Forward Thrust, there really wasn’t a jelling around what’s the mechanism to get it built. Greg Nickels and Cynthia Sullivan [two members of the King County Council] in the mid 1980s did an advisory ballot that said, “Yes, we want it.” That, I think, was the start. That is why Greg feels so good about getting it open on his watch. They were the first ones after Jim Ellis [considered the godfather of Forward Thrust] and Forward Thrust to put it out to the voters of King County. It has taken strong leadership to stay with the vision. It would have been very easy for our board to collapse under the weight of the criticism in 2001 and say never mind, we aren’t going to do light rail. We will stick with what we are doing. There were many people trying to take us out as an agency. Some in Olympia. There was legislation introduced to break up Sound Transit. Don’t do light rail. Give bus stuff back to the local agencies. Commuter rail: Have DOT [the state transportation department] or somebody do it. But our board was steadfast.

Sound Transit chairman Greg Nickels lost his job as Seattle mayor by failing to make it past August’s primary election. What impact will Nickels’ loss have on the forward progress of Sound Transit?
I think Greg as a regional leader is going to be a big loss for the region about the vision that he has had for high-capacity transit. I can only hope that whoever wins the mayor’s race steps into the vision for high-capacity transit for the region. We have a very strong commitment on our board to our mission. And our mission is really both in the legislation that created us but also in the votes by the public. We were successful with Greg’s leadership as chair back in 2008 to get the Sound Transit 2 package passed. We now have a voter mandate to go build that project. We don’t lose commitment because Greg is no longer going to be on our board. Our mission has been defined by the voters. And we have to deliver it. And the board is very committed to that.

When do you think Sound Transit really turned the corner, when you knew that it had put behind it its financial troubles and was ready to move forward with construction?
It was when we got the clean audit from the inspector general in spring 2003. We got the federal grant in January 2001. But then the new Congress came in. Congressman Rogers as the new chair of the House Transportation Committee requested that it be put on hold. As soon as that got put on hold, even that billion-dollar cost overrun that we announced in December got impacted because now our cash flow got impacted because the federal share wasn’t going to come in on schedule. That put us in a state of, Oh, Oh. We have a plan the board just adopted in January. We got a grant, but now it was put on hold until we could pass the audit. That audit took two years. During that two-year window we put in all these new systems in terms of project management and project control. What happened when we got that clean audit, it was like an independent authority has now said Sound Transit has its act together. During that time we were continuing with the design and we were moving the project forward. But we couldn’t break ground and start construction until we got the federal grant. To get that federal grant you needed to get the clean audit. The grant was for $500 million. That was the 21 percent share of our funding.

How did you answer critics before – and now – that the public’s money would have been better spent on more buses and more roads?
We definitely have people on the trains. Often critics and proponents tend to potentially define light rail as the solution. The way I look at all public transportation is that it’s part of the solution. What we are doing is providing alternatives to sitting in your car in congestion. We are the multi-modal side. There are a lot of people who are always going to be in their cars for some reason. Some people define transit as everybody can get rid of every car that they ever had. I don’t think that’s a realistic goal. Our goal is alternatives. What light rail does is give you predictability. It gives you frequent service. We are running every 7 and 1/2 minutes during the peak hour and about 10 to 15 minutes to a half hour depending on the time of day on weekends. You are creating a regional spine of rail. Your bus service can feed it and serve other parts. What you don’t want to do is have tons of duplicate service between bus and rail. It costs a lot to build. But once you’re in operation, it takes one operator to carry 800 people if the trains are completely full. To carry the same number of people would take 9 or 10 operators, depending on the size of the bus. Your labor costs in terms of rail vs. bus for the long-haul operations are much cheaper to operate for rail on a per-passenger basis. The other thing is a very clean technology. It’s much cleaner. It’s electricity. It’s totally zero greenhouse gas emissions. To me, it’s good for the environment. I love buses, so this isn’t an antibus vs. rail. The other thing that rail has done is that it can create that nexus for development around it and higher densities around rail stations. Bus routes can change. Bus routes can move So there is more predictability for siting decisions and transit-oriented development around rail. Those rails aren’t moving. That service is there. Those are some of the things I do say to them about rail vs. bus.

Looking to the future, what can South King County expect in new service from Sound Transit over the next 10 to 20 years?
We have five subareas that we track costs and build projects in within the three counties. South King County and Pierce County are the only two areas that have commuter rail, bus and bus capital infrastructure and light rail. They are already getting all three modes of transit that Sound Transit provides, because they have had commuter rail since 2000 and buses since 1999 and now light rail. They have a lot of transit right in that area. There are about 100,000 new hours of additional bus service in Sound Transit 2. There are the extensions of light rail. On the commuter rail side we are going to get four more round trips. We are going to go from 9 to 13. We will phase in those over about the next five years. We are also going to extend the platforms for commuter rail. We can do seven-car trains. We will extend all the platforms to eight cars. We are going to add what equates to about 65 percent more capacity to commuter rail between trips and just capacity by just adding another train car to our sets. There is still a lot more service to come.

The future on the Eastside is a little more complex. Under Sound Transit 2, Eastside residents will get their own light rail on a new rail corridor and more bus service. Describe the work on the Eastside.
Probably the biggest project in the Sound Transit 2 plan is the East Link project. That is light rail that comes in from the International District station [in south Seattle], goes across I-90 to Bellevue and then to Overlake Transit Center, which is Microsoft headquarters. We don’t have the money to go all the way to downtown Redmond. But we are doing the planning all the way to downtown Redmond. We are in the final environmental impact statement process. We have looked at a combo of about 19 different routes for this corridor. The board selected a preferred alignment, not a final alignment, that we are starting some engineering on. When I look at East Link, the three big challenges in that project are we have to negotiate an agreement with the state Department of Transportation because we will get the center lanes on the I-90 bridge [over Lake Washington]. So that has controversy to it. We also believe that was a condition in the 1979 agreement and the record of decision from the federal government when Brock Adams approved the construction of the bridge that those are high-capacity transit lanes in the center. When you come off the bridge and go into Bellevue, there are community groups that want one alignment that the city and Sound Transit so far have not selected in the preferred path. So, there are neighborhood issues. Where you go through downtown Bellevue there is a huge issue about whether to have a tunnel or not. The city wants a tunnel. We don’t have money for a tunnel. We have been clear about that. We are still looking at that issue. But there are lots of decisions similar to the ones that the board had to make over the last 12 years on trying to build this first part of the alignment.

What will you do to ease impacts on Eastside business and traffic during and after construction of light rail?
We can’t specifically answer that now because we don’t know the exact alignment or the construction impacts. As you do project development, you define the design and the impacts and you go through that. I know we have learned a lot by the construction we have already done. We are just continually getting better at working with the business communities. Our staff is doing a great job. We are right in the heart of a business district on Capitol Hill [in Seattle]. We do on-the-street outreach. There are a variety of things. If we are impacting businesses, like if there are relocations, there are a lot of federal guidelines that we have to follow to do that. We will use a multiple number of tools. We built the big Bellevue direct-access project right off of Northeast Eighth Street and 405. There was a lot of concern about business impacts. That just went beautifully. The key is working with the businesses and working with the business organizations like the Bellevue Downtown Association and Bellevue chamber and individual property owners on the city. I am totally confident that we can build that project with good mitigation and tools so that businesses don’t suffer any more than they have to. There is always pain with construction. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a road or transit project. There is always pain. Being really up front and transparent about it is the key.

What are some of the guiding principles that the Sound Transit Board of Directors will follow in making its final decision on which alignment option, including whether there is a tunnel, to pick for Bellevue?
It will be a combo. It will be: Can we afford it? That is the first one. We were very clear that we didn’t have money for a tunnel. The cost estimate that was in the Sound Transit 2 plan was based on an aerial alignment. The general rule of thumb is that surface is least expensive. Aerial is the next expensive and tunnel is the most expensive. We had wiggle room in the cost estimate because we picked the aerial. We didn’t pick the lowest cost, which gave us some flexibility. They will look at effectiveness. There is one thing to build it, and it’s another to operate it. You want to make sure your alignment is easy to operate. You don’t want a bunch of sharp turns. Are we locating stations in places where it serves people and businesses? You don’t build this stuff to have the trains empty. They will look at all of that and then the impacts. One of the debates about the tunnel is that there were two or three different tunnel alternatives. One is much more impactful in the community than another. You have tradeoffs of impact and cost in your construction methodology. When the board made the decision in May on the preferred alignment, its action actually laid out some direction in terms of what we want for more information on various construction methodology. They asked for more research between the various alternatives that the city of Bellevue wanted versus what they selected. How many businesses are impacted? Do we have to relocate businesses? All of that will play into their decision. We asked the city of Bellevue, If you want a tunnel, show us how you are going to help fund it. We can’t fund it on our dollars.

So, without additional funding from Bellevue, is a tunnel simply not a viable option?
I don’t think we know that yet. That’s premature to know that. The cost estimate was aerial which was more expensive than surface. The city worked with us on other parts of the alignment that might be less expensive. We have to look through all the analysis before we will be able to say that. We are being clear, that as of now, we don’t have the money. It’s probably the biggest decision in front of the board in the next 12 months.

How will light rail ease the general commute between the Eastside and Seattle?
We have done a traffic analysis with the Department of Transportation that shows if you do nothing (mainly on the I-90 corridor) and just population growth and all that projected stuff happens that that commute is going to significantly worsen over the next 20 years. When you put light rail in there, there is a pre-project to light rail that we have to do which is to build two-way HOV lanes on the bridge. We have all the federal approvals for that. It is a joint project we have been working with the state transportation department on that. Phase one of that is already built. Before we can take the center lanes, we have to build new HOV lanes. If you think about it, the center lanes are reversible now. They are not working two ways. And the commute over time has really shifted. Those now work reversible as if peak demand is going certain ways. It’s now starting to be about 50-50. So you really need two-way, all-day HOV lanes like you have elsewhere on the freeway. We have to build those lanes. I really want to underscore this. We are not impacting the existing general-purpose lanes. There are three lanes on the bridge for general single-occupant cars. Those three lanes stay. We build new HOV lanes. Then we put in high-capacity transit. For the future, we have so much more capacity to move people across that infrastructure. I just think it’s going to change the commute patterns between east and west in this region in a significant way over time.

What was a key lesson that you learned from building that first 14 miles of light rail that will help you move forward with the East Link?
My big motto is under promise and over deliver. [She laughs.] Because that is not where we started. A key lesson: I think being very clear and upfront and transparent about what we can and can’t afford to do. One of our challenges and this isn’t unique to Sound Transit. We have to get permits in every jurisdiction we go through. We don’t have any rights to come into downtown Bellevue and build this project. Everything is a negotiation and a partnership about getting permits. They can’t unreasonably withhold a permit. But they certainly have major influence, just like the city of Seattle did in building light rail in their city. That is a real challenge for us. A lesson for me is that we have to be very clear, which I think we have been on this tunnel. That is an example. We can’t afford it. If you want it, then you have to help us get there. My motto through all of ST2 with the board and other settings: 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. That’s how Sound Transit lost its credibility, I think. Those days are over, at least on my watch. For however long that is.

How much closer will we be to getting rid of our cars?
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. But I am not one of those who believes that people will get rid of their cars. I fundamentally don’t believe that. The option to do it will be much greater. [Earl commutes to her Seattle office from Tacoma, where she lives.] I am one of those perfect examples where I have learned and it has not been easy, which I think is a problem with transit that we are still working on as an industry, to figure out how to get around a region without your car. It’s doable in this region between biking, walking and public transit. You can do it. We have not found all the right tools to make it super easy. Part of it is that we have so many options.
Dean A. Radford is Editor of the Renton Reporter. He can be contacted at editor@rentonreporter.com.