Joni Earl, Special guest

Good piece in Crosscut on Joni Earl’s remarkable tenure running Sound Transit:

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.

If you weren’t paying attention to Puget Sound transportation issues back then, let’s just say that things were looking pretty grim for Sound Transit and rail as a whole. The 2001 turnaround was quite something. Sound Transit’s 20-year history can be easily separated into two eras: pre- and post- Joni Earl’s arrival. The former era was marred by cost overruns, delays, and poor planning, while in the current era the agency has been able to deliver projects on time and on budget, even through the Great Recession. This record allowed ST to win another vote in 2008 and build a wave of enthusiasm for a third measure as early as next year.

9 Replies to “Joni Earl Receives a Courage Award from Crosscut”

  1. Joni Earl certainly deserves every award that will ever come her way. But I think she’ll tell you better than I can about the circumstances surrounding the planning of any major transit project.

    Public transportation was still digging itself out from under the rubble of I-695. The damage to our State’s finances, especially public transit, has yet to be repaired. But from the point of view of public service across the board, the worst thing was not when the initiative passed- and 56% isn’t a landslide.

    The worst was that when the State Supreme Court summarily ruled the measure unconstitutional, the legislature passed it verbatim by a large majority. So Crosscut’s including that body’s editorial assessment of the performance of any transit official needs to consider the Legislature’s handling of its own responsibilities in the face of stress.

    So this is what I think Joni really deserves from all of us who make transit a personal priority: I’d like to see the editorial board of the Seattle Transit Blog put its own signature on the award. Any biographer knows that sources matter.

    And pin a really beautiful rose to the paper after the last signature. Punctuation is important too. Thank you, Joni.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Well stated Mark. It couldn’t be stated more accurately and clearly. Whereas Seattle politics was (and is) typically politically correct, indecisive, defensive and muddled, Joni Earl came from Snohomish county and began the VERY tough process of guiding an agency governed by 18 board members with often conflicting agendas. She inserted her delightful brand of decisiveness and intelligence with a sense of professionalism and class that will never be duplicated. As an transit activist those 10 hard years from 1999 to 2009, I was proud of the all of my friends who took an interest in transit and worked with Joni Earl and her amazing staff at Sound Transit to improve Public Transportation in Puget Sound.

  2. Joni Earl evokes in most people who meet her and examine her legacy, a sense of pride and dare I say, affection.

    That is very remarkable for a bureaucrat. But there it is. A woman who took the reins of a troubled and distrusted agency, and turned it into a model of fiscal and operating efficiency. That worked with and gained the trust and respect of the many different actors in the governments that make up Sound Transit’s district.

    She bested those who had targeted the agency to fail, instead building the starter line they said couldn’t be done.

    Those of us who believe that government should do great things for the betterment of our society, see in Ms. Earl the embodiment of this ideal.

    I agree she is deserving of every accolade she has coming to her.

    1. Here’s the best line from that Stranger article:

      “Joel, you represent an agency on the rise and Joni represents an agency on the ropes.”

      Say Josh, how’s that ‘agency on the rise’ working out for you?

      1. Ease up, Richard. You won. Remember Tom Paine’s observation that “Time makes more converts than Reason.”

        As I think will eventually be proven by the eventual restoration of the Waterfront streetcars as part of an electric freight and passenger railroad circling the whole bay.

        But in the meantime, seriously, Richard, Thank You for Your Service. But be careful. Experts say transit politics are worst possible risk for PTSD!


  3. She certainly has increased the competency of Sound Transit. Perhaps it is too much of any one person to get our politicians to care about making sure projects are cost effective, but it would be nice if we could get a little more bang for our Sound Transit bucks

  4. Remember, Frank, that something happened in Fall 2001 that seriously distracted national attention away from transit projects. As well as doing some serious damage to our economy. Like with I-695, worse than the loss of money, drawing away from transit the focus necessary for positive and effective work.

    I think that what’s often called “lack of leadership” really amounts to people avoiding or just struggling with the decisions that their job description requires, and whose attention is also diverted from the details that the work demands.

    I doubt that anybody official except Joni would have the courage to look in the face the actual amount of money wasted because elected and managerial levels of the transit system had virtually nothing on their minds but the change of agencies between Metro and King County.

    If four letters can get a word “bleeped” off the radio, “Governance” could blow out a main transmitter. For the “Merger”, I wish somebody had called it to the FCC’s attention.

    We’re lucky that the cab crew on Bertha will not be have to remove their caps and respectfully salute the stranded wreckage of our own boring machines as they come level with, say, Third and Union.

    But at least in those years, no one could honestly say that the distraction was weaponized. This year’s 100% diversionary campaigns deserve a trip to the Hague for dropping worse things on our people than Assad’s barrel bombs. Relieving candidates of both sides of facing demands about how they’re going to govern. And why up to now they can’t.

    And Seattleite, the archives section on the 10th floor of the Downtown Library could use ten years’ compiled perspective on the Monorail Project. While you’re up there, incidentally, check out the original engineering studies for the future of the Waterfront Streetcar.

    From both the board meetings I attended on the monorail, and the my time at both meetings and artic steering wheels on the Downtown Seattle Transit Project, I think your research will reach these conclusions:

    One, that for even the most democratically chosen transit project, details such as the number of rails or the coverings of the train-wheels should require a voter competency test (not administered by anyone named either Bull or Joe Arpaio) for a firm understanding of vehicle mechanics. And same savvy for footing pillars in ground that’s basically water with a little dirt in it.

    Two, that frustrated anger is a dangerously unstable energy source for the design and build of a city-wide elevated railway. Meaning above all else that no established agency should answer a legitimate demand for necessary action, like some overdue transit for Seattle’s western corridor, with a dismissive order to just get in line.

    But three: Joni, against a political atmosphere that relishes making examples of people, best defense is a leader who can set one. Note to staff: Tell the florist add a Bird of Paradise.


  5. A key passage by Copeland uses “faith” appropriately. “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.”

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