Remember that corny Star Trek spoof with Tim Allen from a few years ago? The one with the motto, "Never give up! Never surrender!" That may as well have been Joni Earl's motto as chief executive officer of Sound Transit. Since she came into the position, it's been a fight along the way, one she intended to win — and did.
FROM THE FRYING PAN…
Sound Transit doesn't have the pedigree of most agencies around the country. A little more than a decade old, it's an infant compared to other industry monoliths. That said, it's been through its trial by fire and Joni Earl has been there from the beginning.
"I first met Sound Transit through the startup part," says Earl. "After the vote was successful in 1996, I helped the then executive director, Bob White, think about some different organizational models. And I was one of the people he kind of checked in with about just how to set up an organization as a new one. So that was my first introduction."
White would call on Earl a few years later when he convinced the board to create a new position within the company. A second-in-command position, the chief operating officer, would report to White and help with the management side of the business.
"[White said] I've just gone to the board and gotten permission to create a new No. 2 position, a chief operating officer, so I don't need somebody with a transit background, I need somebody who knows how to run an organization. I've got lots of transit experts," remembers Earl.
After looking at the position and asking White about it, Earl thought it sounded like a cool job. And after discussing it with her husband, she applied and in October of 2000 she accepted the position and began her career with Sound Transit.
Wanting to finish up work at her current position, Earl had six weeks between when she accepted the position and when she actually started at the agency. In that time rumors began to swirl that Sound Transit's plans for a light rail project were in trouble. Outside critics were even calling for audits of the agency.
"I would call in periodically and say you know I am giving up a perfectly great job, is there something you need to tell me?" says Earl.
"And [Bob] kept saying, no Joni I want you to focus on the organization, everything is fine, I am working on the light rail project."
Earl made the decision to go with White's assurances and move into the position at Sound Transit. A decision she would soon think twice about.
…AND INTO THE FIRE
Earl wasn't on the job as Sound Transit's chief operating officer a month when everything fell apart.
"So I came and it was like three weeks later when all Hell broke loose at the project level — on every level possible," says Earl.
"So Bob asked me to look at the project with fresh eyes. I didn't have any light rail transit experience, but I have a lot of capital project experience from building different projects from jails, to city halls, to courthouses, to roads.
"So I was tapped in with a consultant who came in and the two of us kind of organized everybody and just looked at everything from top to bottom."
What Earl found would leave a lump in anyone's throat. The agency was going to miss the date and budget for the project … by a wide margin.
"I had been here two months when I announced to [White] and the board that we had a $1.1 billion cost overrun and we were going to be three years late."
Earl says it was a very hard time for the agency. It had just received a $500 million New Starts grant from Congress and with it being the last year of the current administration, the agency was presented with a slew of questions.
"We had to resubmit all of the stuff, and I've been told the very last piece of paper signed by the Clinton administration was our New Starts grant with the new cost and schedule numbers in it," says Earl, but the bad news was just beginning.