How Joni Earl saved light rail

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Joni Earl may have been looking for a challenge when she left a big job in Snohomish County government to join Sound Transit in 2000. But what she walked into quickly became a matter of life-or-death for the Seattle area's hopes for a strong mass transit system.

It would take years of hard work, strong leadership and quiet resolve on Earl's part. And she had to maintain her calm in the midst of angry challenges from the public, media and state and federal officials to even begin to turn around an agency whose troubles launching light rail seemed nearly certain to leave the region more car-dependent than ever.

Earl’s quiet, sustained fortitude earned Sound Transit's longtime CEO this year's Crosscut Courage Award in lifetime achievement.

In May, the agency announced that Earl, 62 and a 1975 graduate of Washington State University, would take early retirement next year, after a new section of light rail opens from Downtown Seattle to the University District. She has continued to fight health and mobility issues in the wake of cerebral blood vessel leakage and brain surgery in April of last year.

Shortly after Earl came to Sound Transit as chief operating officer in 2000, questions about the agency's ability to manage the Seattle area's first light rail line grew into a crisis. State lawmakers complained about the transit agency, federal transportation officials launched a two-year audit and pulled back on a big financial commitment, and congressional leaders demanded officials come to D.C. to answer their questions. It was a crisis that might have spun into a death spiral.

As Sound Transit’s then-CEO and a host of other executives left under fire, the board turned to Earl in 2001, just months after her arrival, and asked her to take the helm. Within the agency, officials recall, she maintained morale, bucked up faith in value of rail transit and demanded much more careful staff work on budget, construction plans and costs. She went public with bad news, issuing sharply revised construction schedules, admitting that the agency could only complete some two-thirds of the rail work it had promised voters in 1996. And she said the limited work would cost more and take longer.

Figuring out the changes and making them work was no small task. "It was so intense," she would later say in an interview with WSU's magazine. "I went for five months without a day off. I had some 24 hour days in there where I just called my husband and he brought me some clothes. I look back now and I don’t know physically how some of us got through it. It was just adrenaline and fear."

By the middle of 2003, the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general had given the agency a clean bill of financial and management health, clearing the way for granting a half-billion dollars in federal aid.

It was a remarkable turnaround that was enabled, say those who know her, by her abilities to deal with finances, dig into a situation honestly (a favorite Earl saying around Sound Transit remains, “Optimism is not our friend”) and work well with people in the general public, political life and within the organization. But if people didn't deliver on their work commitments, she would let them know, and be prepared to fire them if it happened again. And she could be just as tough externally in protecting Sound Transit's commitments and finances, refusing, for instance, to add amenities sought by politicians for their neighborhoods.

Says her boss in Snohomish, former County Executive Bob Drewel, "Joni is just one of those remarkable public servants that actually believes and practices that she is working for the taxpayer."

And she built a team with similar values that helped guide the first light rail project to completion on time and under the estimates of the revised budget — something that seems to be happening again with work on the University Link project.

In an email this week, King County Executive and Sound Transit Board Chair Dow Constantine, said, "Joni Earl is the primary force behind light rail in Puget Sound. With her vision, her tenacity, and her diplomacy, she got Sound Transit out of the starting gate and on track, on budget, and delivering."

Earl would say later that her job was made easier by the fact that, while she was on the spot with the media and powerful politicians, at least she was seen as cleaning up after earlier mistakes.

Be that as it may, she came through, not just surviving but also building a better future for the region.


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