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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

March 2009

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Sound Transit Set to Open Seattle's First Light-Rail Line


By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

Thundering applause fills the Great Hall at Seattle’s Union Station. So much so, Seattle Mayor and Sound Transit Board Chairman Greg Nickels starts his speech, stops, restarts and has to stop again. Grinning ear to ear, Nickels doesn’t seem to mind. After all, it’s not every day you get a check for $813 million.

It’s Jan. 15, and officials from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) are paying a visit to Sound Transit to deliver a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) for the University Link light-rail line, the next — well, link — in the agency’s regional transit-rail plan. More than 100 people are on hand to take part in the ceremony — Sound Transit board members and staffers, political and community leaders, local media and a few passers by who wander in to see what all the commotion is about.

The 3.15-mile underground University Link will enable passengers to connect between downtown Seattle and the University of Washington in seven minutes, and Capitol Hill and the university in three minutes. Having funds in hand for a light-rail corridor that “will change the way people think about transportation in our city,” according to Nickels, certainly is cause for celebration.

But on that January morning, Sound Transit officials and other project stakeholders weren’t just cheering for the FTA check — they also were celebrating what it signified. University Link marks the final stage of Sound Transit’s initial light-rail system that was approved by voters in 1996, a program mired with budget and management issues that were so alarming in the early years they jeopardized not only the project, but the future of the agency itself.

Sound Transit officials since have transformed the young agency into a more open and fiscally stable organization, launched commuter-rail and express bus service, put the Link project back on track — albeit several years later than originally scheduled — and regained enough of the public’s trust that voters in November 2008 gave the go-ahead for the next phase of regional transit projects.

This summer, Sound Transit will open Central Link, Seattle’s first light-rail corridor. The agency also will begin construction on University Link, and start prepping for the next 36 miles of new light-rail lines and a commuter-rail expansion. The goal: ensure that the rail projects to come run much more smoothly than the rail projects of the past. To reach it, Sound Transit execs will rely on lessons learned, a sound management strategy and good, old-fashioned hard work — much the same way they transformed Sound Transit from an agency on the verge of collapse to one that is successfully managing one of the country’s largest transit-expansion programs.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons and retooled, and been very good at what we’re doing, but that’s with one line,” says Sound Transit Chief Executive Officer Joni Earl. “Now, we’re going to have three light-rail lines in different stages of planning and construction, as well as our commuter-rail and bus service.”

A Regional Plan is Born

The Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, more commonly known as Sound Transit, was established in the early 1990s and charged with planning, building and operating a transit system in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, which are home to almost half of the state’s population. After a failed vote in 1995, voters in 1996 approved Sound Move, a $3.8 billion ballot measure that called for launching commuter-rail and express bus service, as well as building 25 miles of light-rail lines in the Seattle-Tacoma region.

When Earl joined Sound Transit as chief operating officer in October 2000, the agency was one year into operating bus service and had launched the 73.5-mile Sounder commuter-rail service between Tacoma, Seattle and Everett a month earlier. That’s also right about the time rumors began flying that costs for the Central Link project — the first segment of Seattle’s light-rail line — were spiraling out of control.

Having most recently served as deputy county executive for Snohomish County, Earl was familiar with Sound Transit and the Sound Move projects, but knew very little about the transit industry. She had a finance background and a master of business administration — exactly what former Sound Transit CEO Bob White was looking for in a new COO.

“He said, ‘I have a lot of transit experts here, but I need someone who knows how to run an organization,’” says Earl, as she candidly recalls her early days at the agency. “Originally, he said, ‘You don’t need to deal with the rumors with light rail. I just need you focused on the organization; I’ll work on the light-rail problems.’”

But within a matter of weeks, the chatter became too loud to ignore.

“I asked what was really going on and [White] said, ‘I need you to look at this light-rail project with fresh eyes,’” says Earl.

What she saw wasn’t pretty. Sound Transit planners had underestimated real estate costs, which soared in Seattle in the early 2000s. Property values had inflated even further for homes and businesses along the proposed light-rail alignment. Planners also had missed the mark on administrative costs. The finance plan assumed 100 employees were needed to carry out the $4 billion, 10-year program; when Earl joined the agency, there were 220. To top it off, planners didn’t implement the proper project controls and tracking systems necessary to keep a large-scale capital project in check.

“You have to know where every dollar is going with every decision you make along the way — every agreement with every jurisdiction, every property you acquired, how you do your estimating — and they didn’t have that infrastructure,” says Earl. “What they had was $4 billion and a 10-year schedule to build a light-rail project, put out bus and Sounder service, negotiate right of way and get operating agreements.”

Crisis Mode

In December 2000, Earl announced the light-rail project was $1.1 billion over budget. Amid the fallout — angry legislators and an even angrier public, and a board that felt “lied to” — White resigned in January 2001 and Earl was appointed acting CEO.

“I told the board at that time, ‘We’re in crisis. We could lose the project, we could lose the agency, so I need to know you’ve got my back,’” Earl recalls. “I’m going to have to bring in some new people, I might not have time to follow every process we normally would, but you’ve got my commitment — I’ll bust my tail to save this project.”

Earl since has had plenty of opportunities to showcase her tail-busting skills.

The night before leaving office in January 2001, the Clinton Administration signed a $500 million FFGA for the light-rail project, despite the cost issues.

“Some of our congressional delegation literally camped out at the transportation secretary’s office trying to get the grant signed, and we did — at 8:45 p.m. the night before they changed government,” says Earl.

But the victory was short-lived. As soon as the grant was executed, a new appointee to the House Appropriations Committee put a hold on the grant, and requested that Congress conduct hearings on the project and an inspector general conduct an audit of the agency.

“I had to go testify at a very hostile congressional hearing and I’m still learning the language of transit,” says Earl.

The held grant also disrupted the project’s cash flow, and the ripple effect it had meant Earl had to deliver more bad news in April 2001: The agency no longer could carry out the light-rail project as it originally was intended – it would have to be broken up into more than one project and would be years behind schedule.

Agency officials spent the next several months reviewing the Seattle portion of the Link project (another 1.6-mile light-rail project was under construction in downtown Tacoma).

“People were working 12, 18, 20 hours a day,” says Earl. “I had five or six days where I called my husband and said, ‘Just bring me a change of clothes.’ It was that intense.”

The board appreciated the hard work. In June 2001, members removed the “interim” tag from Earl’s CEO title. And later that year, the agency outlined a revised light-rail project schedule and budget. It called for breaking the line into two segments: Central Link, a 15.7-mile initial segment between downtown Seattle and the airport to open in 2009 (three years behind the initial Sound Move schedule), and University Link, to open in 2016 (10 years behind the original schedule). By breaking the project up, agency officials could better control project costs. The new project budget: $2.4 billion.

To help absorb the more than $1 billion budget gap, Sound Transit eliminated one station from the north end of the line and one from the south. The agency also eliminated a deep-mine station in the First Hill neighborhood that would been built more than 180 feet below ground. In addition, Sound Transit proposed collecting sales tax revenue over a longer period of time.

The board adopted the revised plan in November 2001. But it didn’t mean the end of Sound Transit’s problems. The media was harsh as ever, project stakeholders still were skeptical that Sound Transit could actually carry out the project, and the long hours and public backlash had taken a toll on agency employees.

“I told my employees, ‘There is no silver bullet for credibility. We’ve lost the public’s confidence and now all we can do is deliver,’” Earl says. “I can go out there and tell them we’ve changed — we’re just fabulous now — and not one person will believe me.”

Setting an Example

So instead of telling the public and other project stakeholders about their transformation, Sound Transit officials focused on showing them.

In an effort to improve communication efforts, Sound Transit compiled a “stakeholder list” and began emailing breaking news alerts. In addition, Earl began distributing a CEO report every Friday that reviews the week’s events. And to curtail the negative media attention, Sound Transit began pre-briefing members of the media on complex issues.

To address accountability issues, Earl began compiling an annual “milestones” report — “a very succinct, ‘here’s what you can expect from us every year’ publication” that outlines the agency’s goals. Earl began meeting with the board quarterly to discuss which milestones the agency missed and why.

As for employee morale? Earl & Co. have learned to celebrate the small successes.

“The first day that we had no news story about Sound Transit — and it was a good five months — I called everyone into the board room and we cheered that victory,” she says.

Earl also did her best to keep the mood light.

“I learned one of our employees was a world-class Frisbee thrower, so I asked her to come to an all-staff meeting and do a demonstration,” she says. “We used the Great Hall and I let employees throw Frisbees around to release tension.”

Back on Track

Sound Transit’s openness has made a difference. Over time, Earl believes the agency has been able to steadily gain back trust from the feds, local leaders and general public. During the past seven years, several milestones have served as affirmation.

In October 2003, the FTA awarded Sound Transit its long-awaited $500 million FFGA.

“The day we got that money, I mean, people were in tears,” says Earl.

The agency broke ground on Central Link a couple of weeks later and has remained on the revised schedule and budget.

Agency officials have been planning future light-rail phases, too, and in November 2008, voters in the Sound Transit district approved a $17.8 billion ballot measure that calls for adding 36 miles of new light-rail lines, and expanding commuter-rail and bus service during the next 15 years.

The issuance of the University Link FFGA in January was further proof that Sound Transit has overcome its Link light-rail project issues.

And this summer, Sound Transit will mark the biggest milestone of them all when it opens the majority of the Central Link line, a 14-mile portion between downtown Seattle and Tukwila. Later this year, the agency will open the remaining 1.7 miles between Tukwila and Sea-Tac airport.

“To get this open, it shows the public that we can make decisions, stick to them and deliver complex projects,” says Earl. “That’s huge.”

Today, Earl describes Sound Transit as being “really, really healthy.” The agency earned another clean bill of financial health during an independent audit conducted last year. In addition, unlike many other transit agencies, Sound Transit is not proposing any service cuts or fare increases in its upcoming budget

“We’ve stayed really conservative and while things are tight financially, we’re in good shape despite the economy,” says Earl.

Not that agency execs are necessarily breathing a sigh of relief. Their challenges are far from over. Sound Transit now will begin building the last piece of the light-rail system included in the original Sound Move plan, the three-mile extension to the University of Washington that will run entirely underground. Agency officials simultaneously will be managing the next phase of Seattle’s transit expansion projects under Sound Transit 2 (ST2) and launching service on Seattle’s first light-rail line — all under the ever-watchful eyes of federal officials, local leaders and the public.

Tweaking the Management Team

That’s why Sound Transit execs’ “do or die” attitudes remain intact, as does their strategy to communicate often, be upfront about the challenges they face, remain accountable for their actions and do whatever necessary to deliver the projects that the public has once again entrusted them to complete.

But Earl also knows the management approach Sound Transit has been using the past several years will have to be tweaked as the agency takes on new responsibilities. For starters, Earl is restructuring the agency “so we’re more than just build, build, build,” she says.

Since its creation, Sound Transit managers and employees have been aligned under different modes rather than functions, with workers grouped under a light-rail, commuter-rail or bus department. Now, agency employees will focus on all three modes under more generalized departments — planning and project development, design and construction, and operations.

“We need to get some of our leaders up to the 10,000-foot level and keep the nuts-and-bolts people focused,” says Earl.

Adding a couple new leaders could help. In late February, Sound Transit appointed Ron Tober to the newly created position of deputy CEO. He has more than 35 years of experience managing transit operations and capital projects, and most recently served as CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, where he oversaw the construction and opening of North Carolina’s first light-rail line.

Sound Transit also installed Ron Klein in a new director of communications and external affairs position. He most recently served Washington’s Pierce County and was responsible for media relations, public outreach and education, Internet and Intranet site development, and operation of the county’s cable television channel.

Earl and her top managers also plan to develop asset-

management and preventive maintenance programs (“By the end of this year, we’re going to have $2 billion to $3 billion in assets,” she says), and set up a capital replacement fund to ensure Sound Transit can maintain its systems.

“We’ve been so capital driven that our weakness, in my mind, is we haven’t been able to get on the front end of issues because we’re so good at crisis management,” says Earl. “It’s almost like the adrenaline of crisis is what propels us.”

Five-Point Plan

The board is getting in on the restructuring action, too. Late last year, Earl and board members created a five-point strategic plan that details goals for Sound Transit to: accomplish Sound Move scheduled projects on time, on budget and within board policies; develop implementation strategies for ST2; organize to enhance effectiveness; build on and sustain effective partnerships with cities, counties, state government, institutions and communities; and work with the board to ensure accountability and transparency.

In addition, board members will hold an all-day retreat this month to frame policy issues, discuss transit-oriented development (which wasn’t as hot a market when Sound Transit built its first light-rail line), discuss lessons learned and develop plans to work better with contractors.

“We start collecting our new money in June, so we have several months to get our act together on where we’re headed before the onslaught starts,” says Earl. “After what we’ve been through, we are not going to mess this up on my watch.”

They can’t afford to. Population in the Seattle region is expected to grow more than 30 percent by 2030, and transit will be the best — in some cases, only — transportation option to accommodate the influx of people. With Puget Sound to the west and Lake Washington to the east, the Seattle area is a topographical bottleneck.

“Even if there were the political will to significantly expand the road system, in many places it’s not conceivable without moving to double-deck highways, which would literally be astronomically expensive,” says Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick. “We’ve really reached the stage in our region where transit, in most corridors, represents the most realistic way to add capacity.”

Expanding in All Directions

In the voter-approved ST2 plan, the agency has outlined light- and commuter-rail, and bus service expansions that will build on the existing system and serve the fastest-growing cities in the region. The package will be funded through a sales tax increase, revenue from the existing Sound Move taxes, federal grants and bonds.

The plan includes $12.1 billion to add 36 miles of light-rail services to the north, east and south.

North Link will pick up at the end of the future University Link and extend further north into Snohomish County.

“This is one of the most congested traffic areas in the region, and demand in that corridor is extremely high,” says Patrick.

The agency already has an approved Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the line, which will be the first light-rail corridor completed under ST2.

East Link will run from Seattle to Bellevue and Redmond, home to Microsoft. The corridor will cross Lake Washington on Interstate 90, which sits on a floating bridge that features a center lane that can be used for transit-rail service.

“Once this corridor is complete, you’ll have the two largest employment centers in the state connected with rail service,” says Patrick.

Sound Transit has completed a draft EIS for East Link and currently is discussing route alternatives.

Finally, the agency will extend light-rail service south from Sea-Tac Airport with three more stops into Federal Way, one of the state’s largest and fastest-growing cities in the state, Patrick says.

ST2 also calls for expanding Sounder capacity 60 percent between Seattle and Tacoma by adding more trains, lengthening platforms at each of the stations to handle eight- instead of six- or seven-car trains, and providing more frequent service. The agency also is extending the commuter-rail line about eight miles south, from Tacoma to Lakewood.

ST2 will enable Sound Transit to serve 70 percent of the population and 85 percent of jobs by 2030, says Patrick. And behind ST2, agency officials also are planning phases three and four of Sound Transit’s build-out.

Considering that just 10 years ago, Seattle didn’t even offer rail service — and the agency that was going to provide it was mired in controversy — Sound Transit’s achievements to date are all the more noteworthy. And it’s not just agency execs who feel that way, Earl says.

“People get transit in this region — we’re behind, and they want it and they support it,” she says. “I think we’re on the verge of something very special here.”


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