NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl to retire next year after University Link opens

One of the most transformative, dynamic, and capable civic leaders the Pacific Northwest has ever seen will soon be stepping down, leaving behind a great legacy, but also giant-sized shoes in need of filling.

Joni Earl, sixty-one, has been at the helm of Sound Transit for nearly a decade and a half. Under her direction, ST went from rudderless, dysfunctional organization to model public agency in the span of just a few years.

Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl

Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl speaks at NPI’s 2013 Spring Fundraising Gala. (Photo: Lincoln Potter/Samaya LLC for NPI)

Today, to the consternation of Tim Eyman, Kemper Freeman Jr., and their ilk, Sound Transit routinely delivers projects on time and under budget. It is building a rail spine for Puget Sound that will ultimately link together dozens of cities and hundred of neighborhoods, including NPI’s hometown of Redmond.

The first segments of that rail spine opened in 2009 as Central Link and Airport Link. They will be followed next year by University Link and Angle Lake Link.

Along with the rail spine, Sound Transit has developed a commuter rail system (Sounder) and large network of Express bus routes to give the people of Puget Sound more options for getting to and from work. Ridership on Sound Transit’s buses and trains has soared over the last few years and shows no signs of stopping. It will see a large jump next year when University Link begins ferrying riders between downtown and the University District.

At the time that Joni became chief executive officer, Sound Transit was in dire straits, struggling to get its fiscal house in order, in danger of losing federal matching funds for light rail construction, facing multiple lawsuits from transit opponents, and watching its public support wither away.

When Joni came in, she changed all that. Working together with former King County Executive Ron Sims, she stabilized the agency, got it on a steady footing, and set about doing the work that Sound Transit was created to do. Now, more than a decade later, as she prepares to leave, ST is firing on all cylinders.

Joni will be greatly missed as Sound Transit CEO. It’s hard for me to imagine Sound Transit without her. In so many ways, she personifies the agency.

But, as Joni herself would tell us, a strong, healthy organization works to eliminate single points of failure. Sound Transit has many other fine, talented people working for it, including people who have worked for and alongside Joni for years, which is one reason why the agency hasn’t skipped a beat despite Joni’s recent absence from the office. (She has been gone since last April on medical leave).

I have no doubt that the values and best practices that she instilled while ST’s leader will remain even after she has departed as CEO.

This region owes Joni Earl so much. She is a personal hero of mine and I will be forever grateful to her for her service and leadership.

Sound Transit Board Chair Dow Constantine says that Sound Transit will launch a national search to find the best person to succeed Joni after she retires.

“Joni has provided visionary leadership since the formative years of Sound Transit,” said Constantine. “From the delivery of Sound Move to the success of ST2 to the planning for ST3, her work is remaking our region around reliable mass transit. Her successor will inherit an able, professional, well-respected organization.”

“The Sound Transit Board and staff have tackled huge challenges and have successfully provided the first mass transit system in our region,” Earl said. “I am so proud of what they have done. It has been both a privilege and an honor to serve as CEO of Sound Transit. Now, as the agency prepares for Sound Transit 3, it is time to hand the reins over to the next staff leader.”

Sound Transit is currently led by Acting CEO Mike Harbour, who is Earl’s deputy. Harbour does not intend to be a candidate for the job of CEO.

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