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)

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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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