As part of this the agency worked with its staff to install project controls, which before this had been seen as getting in the way of project management. Earl would bring in outside consultants to work to change the agency culture and install the ideas that no one department builds a project, it takes everyone pulling together to do it.
"So there were a lot of conversations, a lot of systems changes, getting the various players in the room. And just working through each of the types of systems that we needed to change. We put in a new project management system, new cost methodology, a risk assessment process, which now FTA has picked up and is using in the New Starts program.
"In fact, sometimes I joke with my peers around the country that I'm sorry for some of the new rigor in the New Starts process because I think we contributed a lot to the changes because of what happened here," laughs Earl.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Earl says that when she arrived, the agency had been focused on a $300 million problem, not realizing it had a $1 billion one.
"While they were focused on one cost proposal and one $300 million problem, the board was told, yeah we can work this out. So the board would say, no we don't need any audits, no we don't need to do this, everything is fine. And it wasn't."
This communication problem was as much internal as external. At both times no one knew what was going on, yet there always seemed somebody willing to talk about it.
"What was happening was our media people were buried in the HR department," says Earl.
"They had no direct line to the executive director. They had no direct line to the board. And so media was moving all around this agency and talking to whomever they could. And there was no central organized theme to what it was we were trying to communicate externally, what was important. Even fact checking around here wasn't good."
After working to get the staff in line and start working together to communicate better internally, Earl set about creating an external communications strategy to provide a directed view of the agency to the public.
"We started doing these milestone reports in 2002. We started doing daily media reports. We still to this day send a memo to the board every day if there is any media contacts in case there is a story, so they are not surprised. We got the media smarter on these really technical issues," says Earl.
"It was a multi-pronged approach. All of our communications people pretty much left during the crisis, some by their choice, and others not by their choice, but mostly by choice because they were so burned out.
"We had a public relations consultant, a co-owner of a local public relations firm, she took a leave of absence and came in and was my acting communications director during the crisis. She was very helpful to put a strategy together to start to stop the bleeding externally with the public."
IMPROVING PUBLIC SENTIMENT
With the public behind Sound Transit's projects, but not the agency, Earl was faced with trying to win back support that it had lost along the way. How did it do it?
"We kept building projects. We kept delivering projects. Two good things happened before the crisis hit. We had a lot of bus service on the street and we were opening bus projects. And Sounder commuter rail started right before all this started. So we had other pieces of Sound Transit that were going well. We were starting to see more projects delivered. So the fact that two-thirds of the work we do in terms of service was out on the street and building over time that helped a lot. Our regional express bus service being all around the three counties really helped a lot," says Earl.
Then the region got its first real taste of light rail with the opening of Tacoma Link in 2003. People in the southern part of Sound Transit's service area got to see a major new project for the first time and liked what they saw.
Along the way the agency kept pointing out the milestones it hit and was very open and transparent with the public.
"One of the other things we did was when the Tacoma Link cars arrived, we brought one up for the holiday season and planted it in downtown Seattle so people could touch and feel what light rail was going to look like. And we said the cars are going to be way bigger and all that, but here's what it looks like," says Earl.