"So the board called me into executive session and said Bob just resigned and we want to appoint you acting [CEO]. OK, now I've been here three months," says Earl.
"The message that we had heard, he was willing to resign at any point after this happened, but the message we heard out of D.C. was a big change at that point would maybe put the grant more at risk because of uncertainty about the agency. So he hung in there till the grant was awarded the first time and then he resigned, which I didn't exactly know was going to happen."
Earl describes her first three months at Sound Transit as a whirlwind. But what came next would knock the wind right out of her.
"Two weeks later the new chair of the House Transportation Committee called for an Inspector General investigation. Norm Minetta was the brand new Secretary of Transportation appointed by President Bush and he held up our money."
While the investigation was happening the government held up the agency's grant, which threw all of its projections out the window. So Earl had to go back to the board and tell them that the information she had just given them was wrong. They could no longer afford what she had told them at all.
"So then we had to go back over the next basically five months and completely retool the project and shrink it from the 21 miles to 14," says Earl.
"We put ourselves through some additional audits. We revamped cost estimating systems and project control. It was literally 20 hours a day. I took off Christmas and New Year's and didn't have another day off for five months, including Saturdays and Sundays. And not just me, lots of other people in the organization as well."
GETTING BACK ON TRACK
By this time public sentiment for Sound Transit was horrible. Earl says the agency's problems were front page, headline news for weeks between the cost overrun, the inspector general's investigation and her taking over as CEO in April of 2001. Just five years after it had been formed, the agency's approval rating had dropped from 54 percent to 41 percent and the Washington state legislature had started looking its way. Interestingly enough, public sentiment for light rail never diminished at this time, always hovering around 60 percent in favor.
"It was anti-Sound Transit. They didn't have confidence in the agency. But in terms of the projects that we were doing, they wanted the projects, but they weren't too sure about the agency," says Earl.
"We needed to change the way we were doing business here — and pretty drastically and pretty fast. And the board absolutely blessed all of it. They laid out the path. They wanted more controls after we put in a new cost estimating system and all that.
"The board then had an independent outside auditor come in and audit the new system we installed so that they would have confidence before they approved the new budget scope and schedule. So in my view it was a really strong partnership. The board gave me a lot of authority. They gave me a lot of confidence. They had confidence in me."
With this newfound confidence Earl was able to see that the problems didn't stem from an agency that had jumped the rails, rather it never had rails to begin with.
"This was the case of an agency that hit the ground running in 1996 with a 10-year plan to build three new kinds of service, a $4 billion capital program, who didn't take the time in that aggressive schedule to build an infrastructure about how to track their costs, how to know their assumptions," says Earl.
"I mean the stuff you take for granted in any existing organization, especially the government, which is where everybody came from, either a private sector organization or a government organization that already had an existing infrastructure to do that. We didn't have that.
"So it was pretty clear to me we had to focus on the basic infrastructure of projects. It's pretty simple: scope, schedule and delivery is how you build projects. And you've got to know where you are on each one all the time," says Earl.