Sound Transit: Back from the Brink
By Jean Godden
Things were grim at Sound Transit in those first years of the millennium. How grim? So grim that the agency's employees were updating their resumes, some were bailing out and marketing director Tim Healy jokingly suggested a drinking game: Every time you heard "beleaguered agency" or "troubled Sound Transit" you had to take a sip. Healy figured no one working there would have been sober.
Sound Transit, now a success story with 22 miles of light rail track that extends from the University of Washington to Sea-Tac Airport with nearly 50 million passengers a year, came perilously close to collapse in the pivotal year of 2001.
What were the odds? Slim to none. Five years after 1996 voter approval, the fledgling agency faced an angry backlash after announcing it would require a billion more dollars and three additional years before completion of its initial light rail line. Once bad news surfaced, it was open season on Sound Transit.
At least eight entities formed to bury Sound Transit. One of them, Ride Free Express, listed among its founders two former state governors-- John Spellman and Booth Gardner -- as well as former Metro bus director Chuck Collins.
In Olympia, Dino Rossi, then a state senator, introduced a bill asking voters to dissolve the agency. Rob McKenna, sometimes seen as Good Rob and other times as Evil Rob, fought light rail from his seat on the Sound Transit Board. Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata joined opposition critics along with TV executive Emory Bundy, who branded the agency "Whoops on Wheels" referencing WPPSS, a failed nuclear power project.
Local papers mocked the organization as "hapless" and "out of control." They called it "Unsound Transit" and joked that the agency was "on the midnight train to nowhere." The Seattle Times pulled no punches in an editorial opinion headlined: "Face Reality, Pull the Plug on Light Rail."
And that was just the local push back. In Washington D.C., congressmen as far away as Kentucky, wanted to sink the agency. The Federal Transportation Agency insisted on reforms and put a vitally needed $500,000 federal grant on hold. Acting Sound Transit Director Joni Earl was sent to meet with Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and then was summoned to testify under oath before the House Transportation Subcommittee. After citing Boston's runaway "Big Dig," the FTA administrator vowed, "I do not intend to participate in a Big Dig in Seattle."
The story of the agency's escape from almost certain oblivion has been skillfully captured in "Back on Track: Sound Transit's Fight to Save Light Rail," a behind-the-scenes look at how the light rail train network, managed to survive. The WSU press book is a true cliff-hanging tale, a page-turner with inspiring heroes and ax-wielding critics.
Foremost among Sound Transit's saviors was Joni Earl, a Bremerton-born, WSU business grad, who excelled at managing cities but had no transit background. Hired for her financial skills, Earl shouldered more and more burdens as others resigned. Finally given the executive director's title, Earl became the principal force behind saving Link light rail and the $3 billion program.
Others who played major roles were Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who endured years of intense heat on the Sound Transit board, and former Link executive director Ahmad Fazel, who helped fight back when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer headlined a story (later-retracted) charging the Sound Transit board with securities fraud. In the forefront of the rescue effort were Sen. Patty Murray, former Rep. Norm Dicks and other members of the Puget Sound delegation.
The incredible Sound Transit survival story is retold in vivid detail, much never before recounted, by Bob Wodnik, who served as Sound Transit's senior communications specialist from 1999 to 2017. A one-time reporter for the Aberdeen Daily World and columnist for the Everett Herald, Wodnik doesn't pull any punches in his account of the fierce battle waged to deliver a light rail system.
"Sound Transit, Back From the Brink " was an excellent reminder of how a doomed project turned into an incredible recovery. I appreciate your clear summary of so many ups and downs and years of such a complicated struggle.
The Westside Seattle is fortunate to have you as a columnist-keep writing.