"I would describe it as early on it was tough with BNSF, they're tough negotiators. They're expensive — it was expensive to buy our way on to a freight corridor. But once those agreements were in place I would say they have been excellent partners.
"They've helped us bring on service earlier, they've been flexible with hours at the same time that the freight volumes in this region have really increased. So there has been a lot of pressure on the whole corridor to get all of the freight through, but they've honored the agreement with us. And they've been absolutely great partners.
"We're starting to see more people make choices as a result of these fixed rail investments, especially Sounder," says Earl.
"Because I ride the train, I talk to customers a lot. There was a guy I just started chatting with, and he said his wife and he wanted to live more in the country. They've always been in Seattle and wanted to raise their children in a more suburban-type setting. And he said the only way that made it possible was Sounder."
Earl says that the Sounder commuter rail service hasn't reached full capacity yet. Sound Transit is still making corridor improvements. Seven more round trips are planned between the northern and southern corridors, but past that no plans are in place to add more service because future plans revolve around increased light rail focus.
ROADS & TRANSIT
The next step in the Sound Transit plan is a ballot initiative going out for a vote in 2007 that will ask voters to approve $18 billion for joint funding for the agency and a regional roads package with about $11 billion going to the agency. It wouldn't add a new tax to the region, but be a continuation of an existing tax that Sound Transit uses for funding.
"We were actually planning to be on the ballot in 2006. And then last year the legislature and the government blocked us from going to the ballot because they didn't want transit to go alone. They felt that what needed to happen to the Puget Sound region was a joint integrated effort between roads and transit. So a few years ago the legislature created the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID). RTID's job on the road side is to complete some projects that the state has partially funded through two recent gas tax increases," says Earl.
"So they passed legislation that said Sound Transit has to be on the ballot in November 2007 instead of 2006. RTID has to be on the ballot. They have to go together. And the current legislation says that both have to pass for either to go forward.
"The public gets that roads and transit together is a good investment. So that's kind of the conundrum we're in right now."
Earl says they started the ST2 plan two and a half years ago with more than 500 transit ideas from the public. What the public wanted were extensions of the light rail spine along the I-5 corridor. They also wanted to ease some congestion in Sounder stations and park and rides, but the plan the agency is focused on now has 40 miles of light rail extensions over the next 20 years.
"There really is two things going on," explains Earl.
"One is we are building out a plan the current board really doesn't have a lot of say in because it was already approved by the voters. They're just helping facilitate getting it done. And then we have the ST2 plan.
"But our board does act pretty regionally. I'm proud of this board. They have local interests, but they act regionally when they walk into that room," says Earl.
PUGET SOUND TRANSIT INVESTMENT
Joni Earl went through more in her first six months at Sound Transit than most directors do in six years. She is the first to admit to the agency's mistakes, but she is also candid about its hard work, the quality of effort her people put out and the bright future ahead for not just the system, but the region thanks to the agency's efforts.
"And that's the story. I can't change the past, but we can sure be transparent and accountable and direct with the public on how we are doing in the present," says Earl.
"We know from all of the talking I do out there, all of the polling we've done in the past, the level of support, people just get what we're doing is important."