Earl, Joni (b. 1953)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/30/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20989
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Joni Earl (b. 1953) was the executive director and CEO of Sound Transit from 2001 to 2016, responsible for rescuing Puget Sound's massive rapid transit agency from disaster. When she joined Sound Transit, she discovered it was $1.1 billion over budget and had not built a single mile of light rail. By the end of a three-year period, dubbed the Dark Days at Sound Transit, Earl had instituted a realistic budget, restored public confidence and launched light rail construction. Earl honed her rigorous-yet-kind management style early, as the 32-year-old city manager of Mill Creek and later as Snohomish County's deputy executive. By the time she retired from Sound Transit for health reasons, the agency had built tracks from SeaTac International Airport to the University of Washington and was hard at work on a plan to extend light rail from Tacoma to Everett. In 2017, Sound Transit christened its historic space in Pioneer Square as "The Joni Earl Great Hall at Union Station," in honor of the person most responsible for its survival. 

On-the-job Training

Joni Earl was born Joan Marie Dawkins on September 22, 1953, in Bremerton, Washington, the youngest of three daughters of Maurice (Morrie) Dawkins (1923-2008) and Mary Ellen (Mel) Dawkins (1930-2012), Her father was a small-business owner, real estate agent and civic volunteer who would eventually serve as the Bremerton mayor and city council member. Her parents fostered "an environment of a lot of political discussion" (Hadley).

She graduated from West High School in Bremerton. Hers was not an affluent family, yet she was determined to become the first in her family to graduate from college. She attended Olympic Community College for two years beginning in 1971,  intending to go into nursing. Then she transferred to Washington State University and switched to a business major.

"At WSU I typed term papers and did odd jobs. It gave me spending money. I would come home on vacation and I would work for the city of Bremerton and I would work in the county auditor's office. I worked as much as I could. I had saved enough money to pay my tuition and books. My parents were able to send me $60 a month. But by my senior year the last semester I was just flat out of money. I was carrying 21 credits. I just didn't have the time (to work). I was going to have to go on food stamps. My family had a family meeting. My grandparents took out a mortgage for $750. It was a big deal because they had no debt" (Sudermann). 

When she graduated in 1975 with a degree in accounting, she and her girlfriends piled into a Datsun B210 and drove to Reno to celebrate. On the last day in Reno, she won $750 playing keno and paid her grandparents back "clean and clear" (Sudermann).

Soon after graduation she landed a job as an accountant in the Bremerton city treasurer's office. Within about a year, the assistant city treasurer job opened up. Even though she was only 22, she took the civil service exam for that position. She described what happened next in a 2010 interview: "Three of us took the test. I came in ranking second. I felt really good about that. Then I went to review my scores and I found they made an error in my score. They took it back to the civil service commission and it was corrected and I got first. I had 17 people working for me when I was 22 years old" (Sudermann).

All 17 of her employees were older than her. Initially, they were apprehensive – Earl later recalled that they were probably thinking, "Oh my god, she's a baby practically -- and we're working for a woman" (Sudermann). It was the first time, but by no means the last, that she was the sole woman in the management ranks. She frankly told her employees, "I know I don't know," and then set about gradually gaining their trust (Sudermann). Her appointment coincided with a crisis involving a conversion to a new water billing system, in which some residents racked up huge retroactive water bills. She remembers the job as "a great training ground, both on how to work with people when you are young and inexperienced, and how to handle a crisis" (Sudermann). Handling a crisis, Earl would later wryly note, would become "an unfortunate or fortunate pattern in my career" (Sudermann).

Fast Track to Civic Engagement

This job started Earl on what she called her "unplanned" management track (Sudermann). After a brief stint as an accountant for an airline, every ensuing job would be in civic or public agency management. She also embarked on the first of three marriages, this one being a brief one to Joe Hudson, from 1976 to 1977.

In 1979, she was hired by Kitsap County, first as fiscal officer to the county auditor and then as  director of the internal-management department of the Kitsap County Board of Commissioners. She oversaw a staff of 22, and was in charge of a "hodgepodge" of county functions, including the county budget (Earl interview). In the meantime, she earned a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Puget Sound. She also embarked on her second marriage, to Tom Weber, which lasted from 1981 to 1986.

In 1987, the young city of Mill Creek -- a Snohomish County suburb between Seattle and Everett -- launched a nationwide search for a new city manager. Earl, who was now going by the name of Joni Weber or Joan M. Weber, won the job and started on June 1, 1987.

"I came in on year four of a newly incorporated city," Earl would later recall. "It was a bit of a tumultuous time. I learned later that the debate of the city council behind the scenes was that they thought I was too young. ... But they ended up voting for me" (Sudermann). In fact, the council approved her unanimously. On her eighth day on the job, she also made news when the Mill Creek Rotary Club invited her to be its first woman member. She called it a "really nice gesture" ("New Rotarian"). "I was not interested in being involved in a controversy,'' she told The Seattle Times. "I would not have solicited it from them" ("New Rotarian"). Yet she also said that it was high time for women to be admitted, and that "for me to be able to meet the people in the city, it really is helpful" ("New Rotarian").

This young city manager soon presided over a string of successes. She managed three annexations, instituted a fiscal forecasting and monitoring program, and oversaw a capital improvement program that esulted in a new city hall and expanded library. "They hadn't found out yet at Mill Creek how to be a city," Earl later recalled (Sudermann). The Seattle Times noted that "during Earl's tenure, Mill Creek doubled in size and increased services" ("Mill Creek Official Delighted").

Earl recalled that her time in Mill Creek was "a stabilizing time" -- for both Mill Creek and her personally (Sudermann). She had met Charlie Earl, chief administrative officer for Thurston County (and later president of Everett Community College) through a county budget directors group. They were married in January 1990, a marriage that would last. She would go by the name of Joni Earl from this point on.

Her quiet brand of competence and ethical strength soon attracted the notice of the Snohomish County officials with whom she had been working. By 1991, she was ready for new challenges. Late that year, newly elected Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel snapped her up to be his deputy executive. Drewel said he had been impressed with her mastery of critical and complex issues, including growth management and the permitting process for developers. "Joni Earl understands from firsthand experience the negotiations that will occur between the county and its local governments," said Drewel, announcing her hire ("Drewel's Chief Aide").

She began work as Snohomish County deputy executive in January 1992. Her first tasks involved streamlining the permit process and managing garbage service, yet before long she was essentially running the county's daily business, allowing Drewel "time to work on policy issues with the council and community" ("Mill Creek Official Delighted"). Peter Jackson (b. 1966), Snohomish County conservationist, said that her "knowledge of instream flows and riparian habitat could have put a fisheries biologist to shame" (Hadley). Years later, Drewel would call her "one of the hardest working, most ethical people" he had ever known (Hadley).

During her years at Snohomish County, Earl refined the management style that would later become legendary at Sound Transit. Some described her as a taskmaster -- but a particularly kind and friendly one. "I'm tough on the issues, but I'm not hard on people," she said. "I have pretty high expectations. ... I think they'd say I'm not very good at pausing to celebrate. I kind of move on to the next thing fast" (Hadley). Crucially, she also honed her reputation for getting big projects implemented, for transparency, and for refusing to cut ethical corners.

'All Hell Broke Loose'

Earl had worked closely with Drewel on the 1996 Sound Move ballot proposition, the first phase of Sound Transit. Yet mass transit was by no means Earl's prime area of expertise. "Transportation was not on my horizon or in my thinking," she said, of her mindset in 2000 (Earl interview). That was all about to change.

In August 2000, the job of chief operating officer at Sound Transit opened up. The agency was in trouble, with costs rising and rumors swirling that bids for its Link light rail project might come in high. Sound Transit executive director Bob White was "desperately in need ... of someone who could scrutinize the faltering organization and its structure," wrote Sound Transit staffer and historian Bob Wodnik (Wodnik, p. 36). White phoned Earl to ask for advice about possible job candidates. The more Earl heard about the job, the more she believed it might be right for her.

"I applied for the Sound Transit job because I'd been at Snohomish County for eight and a half years and I was ready for a change," she said (Earl interview). She knew, from both White and Drewel, that Sound Transit had big problems. In fact, Drewel was already aware that White's job was in peril. Drewel warned her in no uncertain terms: "Joni, let me tell you, you'd better be prepared to take that organization over within the next year or so" (Wodnik, p. 40). Despite these warning signs, Earl decided she was up to the challenge. She started as Sound Transit's chief operating officer on October 9, 2000. Within weeks, she found out how enormous the challenge would be. "All hell broke loose," she said (Earl interview).

"I'd been there about six weeks and they asked me to look at the light rail project from top to bottom, because the bids were coming in high on the tunnel portion," recalled Earl. "I took it to the staff and we worked night and day and went through every cost estimate. I came out of that process announcing we were $1.1 billion over budget and three years behind schedule" (Earl interview). Even the staff was thunderstruck. "They knew there were problems in the budget, but they didn't know what they were," she said (Earl interview).

Nor had they been willing to admit to the board that there were problems at all. The head of the Link project complained that if the board would just say no, they wouldn't have these cost problems. Earl was taken aback. "And I said, 'What does that mean, if the board would just say no?' And he said, 'Well they keep saying yes.' And I said, 'Has anybody told them they can't afford it?' And he said, 'Well no.' ... Every time the board would add scope to the project, staff needed to say either we can afford it or we can't afford it. And they weren't doing that" (Earl interview).

On December 12, 2000, Earl stood before the cameras at a press conference and laid out the full extent of the problems -- not just with the Capitol Hill–University light rail tunnel, but with all of the Link overruns. The public finally learned that the entire Link project would cost more than $1 billion more than originally planned. She told reporters, "We need to make sure we're candid and honest and make sure we don't repeat the errors with too much optimism. We hope the public stays with us, because we believe the public still wants this project" ("Light Rail Cost Soars"). Sound Transit became front page news for weeks. Some of its opponents filed suits and "tried to put the nails in the coffin," said Earl (Earl interview).

Surviving the 'Dark Days'

It was the beginning of a devastating period known within Sound Transit as the Dark Days. It was certainly traumatic for Earl personally. "I took a weekend off then didn't get a day off for five months," Earl told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2003. "I worked every day for four or five months and had several 24-hour loads. I look back over those five months, and I don't know how I physically or emotionally did it. I think it was just fear" (Hadley). Some days, Charlie Earl had to deliver a change of clothes to her office.

As Drewel had predicted, the Sound Transit board had no choice but to dismiss Bob White. On January 25, 2001, two days after White was let go, the board named Earl the acting executive director. Many years later, when asked how she felt about this promotion, Earl replied, "Overwhelmed and fearful" (Earl interview). She said she had "never worked for an agency that's just flat out had a lousy reputation" (Hadley). 

Yet the board had confidence in her, because she had diagnosed the problems so completely and had created a new budget based on reality. Over the next few months, Earl had two giant tasks. The first was to create a new culture at Sound Transit. She told the staff that the only way to climb out of this hole was to be totally transparent. She laid out her expectations right away. "One of the big ones was, if there is a problem I need to know," said Earl. "Because I can't solve a problem if I don't know about it -- like what had happened with that $1.1 billion. ... My most notorious statement to staff was, 'Optimism is not our friend'" (Earl interview). By that she meant: unfounded optimism in cost estimates and revenue estimates.

Earl's other urgent task was to rebuild Sound Transit's credibility with the federal government, which had been badly damaged by the budget fiasco. Without crucial federal funding, Sound Transit could not afford to build its Link light rail system. In March 2001, Earl was called to testify in front of Congress, under oath, about all of Sound Transit's problems. She would later describe that experience as "pretty frightening" (Earl interview).

The Link project had to be delayed, because of holds on federal funding. "And I had to tell the board that we couldn't afford the project as planned. So that wasn't a very fun year," she said (Earl interview). The Dark Days would become even less fun when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a story on May 4, 2001, that accused Sound Transit of "deception" and "concealing" the true cost of the Sound Move project from voters and bond investors (McGann). It even raised the possibility of securities fraud.

This outraged Earl and her staff. "A whole bunch of us spent the weekend going through all the documents and coming up with a three-ring binder that proved, paragraph by paragraph, that the story was wrong," she said. "We went to the P-I and asked for a correction. We finally got a front-page correction -- which is almost unheard of. But they had really messed up" (Earl interview). The paper's managing editor wrote, "[The] story did not meet the Post-Intelligencer's standards for accuracy and fairness. We regret that and want to set the record straight" ("Sound Transit Costs Story Incorrect").

The Sound Transit staff had been demoralized all year, to the point where some of them were covering up their ID badges while riding the bus to work, said Earl. Yet the P-I incident had the ironic result of cheering up the staff for the first time in months. "It was a turning point for the agency," said Earl. "The employees saw we would fight for them; the board saw we would fight and win" (Earl interview). Earl had also restored a level of trust with federal authorities in Washington D.C., largely because Earl "became identified as this extraordinarily trustworthy partner with all the players up and down the chain," said Peter Rogoff, a federal official who would later become her Sound Transit successor (Rogoff interview).

Taking Charge of Sound Transit

In May 2001 the Sound Transit board launched a nationwide search for White's permanent replacement. Acting executive director Earl was not certain, at first, whether she wanted to apply. She considered herself by no means a transportation expert. She was frazzled from working every day until 3 or 4 a.m. and starting over again at 8 a.m. She had been on the hot seat for months. But she had come to love the employees and the challenge. She was, she said, "hooked on Sound Transit" (Earl interview). So she applied for the job.

"Some of our board members wanted some internationally known light rail person to come in and take over the operation," said Dave Earling, the board chair. "I knew, from my personal work with Joni at Snohomish County, of the credibility that she would bring automatically ... at both the local level and the federal level" (Earling interview). In June 2001, the Sound Transit board passed over several national candidates and formally offered Earl the position. The board told her they didn't need a transportation expert; they needed somebody who could identify problems, fix them, and gradually heal the agency's self-inflicted wounds.

Once again, regional transit teetered on the precipice. "It could have gone either way, if the board had not stood firm, and if Joni had turned out to be a bad hire, rather than a great hire," said Greg Nickels, Seattle mayor and one of the architects of Sound Transit (Nickels interview). Earl didn't waste much time fretting over the agency's perilous position. "We just put our heads down and went to work," she said. "... I kept telling staff, 'We can't just tell people we're good, we have to show we can deliver this stuff'" (Earl interview). The Dark Days finally ended at the close of 2003 when federal funding came through and the bids for the pared-down Link line came in on budget -- a tremendous turnaround from 2000. "My goal is to stay and get these projects built and be on that first light rail train," she said in a 2003 interview (Hadley).

On November 8, 2003, Sound Transit finally broke ground on Link light rail. An earlier transit hero from Seattle's past, Jim Ellis (1921-2019) weighed in on that day, giving credit to Joni Earl. "She took something that was in a pit and pulled it out remarkably. That's hard to quarrel with," Ellis told reporters ("Groundbreaking Today"). For the next few years, the agency worked on its ST Express bus system, its commuter Sounder train, and its first 14-mile stretch of Link light rail from Sea-Tac Airport to downtown Seattle.

On July 18, 2009, Earl finally achieved her goal of riding on the first light rail train. "Oh, God, that was such a good day," said Earl. "… I stopped at every station, to thank the staff. I remember there was an Ethiopian woman with three small girls, and she stopped to ask me a question, and she said, 'What do you do?' I said I'm the CEO, and she looked at her three girls and she said, 'See, you can grow up and do that!'" (Earl interview).

An astonishing 45,000 people hopped aboard Link on that inaugural day. It was among the most dramatic turning points in the long history of Puget Sound transit. From that point on, Sound Transit's reputation soared. Inevitably, new challenges and crises arose, but Sound Transit kept expanding its mission, laying more track and adding new ST Express buses. 

Sudden Detour Into Retirement

How did Earl accomplish this dramatic turnaround? Her fiscal management skills and overall competence were beyond question, yet her people skills may have been even more crucial. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called her "down to earth, friendly, straightforward, a good listener and quick with a smile" (Hadley). The P-I quoted State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen as saying, "I've seen her turn groups of angry people into very reasonable people" (Hadley).

This helps explains why the entire agency was so badly shaken in April 2014 when Joni Earl was seriously injured while on a walk near her Tacoma home. A little boy on a bicycle ran into her and knocked her to the pavement. Her head was gashed and her wrist broken. She went into surgery a few days later to repair her wrist. It seemed a minor setback, but while recovering from surgery the next day, she "woke up with this horrendous headache" (Earl interview). She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered she had suffered a brain bleed. After brain surgery, she emerged with serious stroke-like symptoms. "My right leg doesn't work right and my right arm doesn't work right," she would later say (Earl interview). She was in the hospital for nearly six months and was unable to work for most of the next two years.

In April 2016, after it had become clear that Earl would not be able to fully resume her duties, she officially retired. The Sound Transit board hired Rogoff, the former head of the Federal Transit Administration, to be the new CEO. "I am not the best candidate," he told the board. "The best candidate is a healthy Joni Earl" ("New Sound Transit Chief"). Sadly, that was no longer in the cards. She later said of her old job, "I miss it every day" (Earl interview)

In an emotional ceremony on October 16, 2017, Sound Transit celebrated the single most important person -- by nearly universal consensus -- in the agency's history. On that day, Sound Transit christened the vast hall at their headquarters the "Joni Earl Great Hall at Union Station." Earl would remember it an "amazing, very special" day (Earl interview). The tributes to her echoed off the hall's vast dome.

Those tributes continued in the months to come. Rogoff used the words "essential and elemental" to describe Earl's importance (Rogoff interview). King County Executive Dow Constantine (b. 1961) said that the opening of the University Link was "an incredible testament to her tenacity and permanent impact on the region" (Constantine interview). Bob Drewel, who navigated the Dark Days alongside her, said, "I am strongly of the belief that, absent Joni Earl, we wouldn't be talking about Sound Transit today" (Drewel interview). 

As of 2020, she and Charlie Earl had moved to her former city, Mill Creek, to be closer to Charlie's children and grandchildren. She keeps busy with yoga and dancing classes -- and she still keeps a sharp and affectionate eye on the agency she brought back from the brink.


Joni Earl interview with Jim Kershner, January 19, 2018, audio recording and transcript in possession of the author; Jane Hadley, "Earl Put Agency Back on Track," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 7, 2003, accessed February 26, 2020 (https://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/Earl-put-agency-back-on-track-1118835.php); Hannelore Sudermann, "What I've Learned Since College: Joni Earl '75" Washington State Magazine, Spring 2010; Bob Wodnik, Back on Track: Sound Transit's Fight to Save Light Rail (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2019); Jerry Bergsman, "New City, New Manager -- And New Rotarian," The Seattle Times, June 17, 1987, p. H1; Jerry Bergsman, "Mill Creek Official Delighted by Appointment to County Job," Ibid., December 5, 1991, p. C3; Jerry Bergsman, "City Manager of Mill Creek Named Drewel's Chief Aide," Ibid., December 4, 1991; Jerry Bergsman, "Mill Creek Official Delighted By Appointment To County Job," Ibid., December 5, 1991, p. C3; Bob Drewel interview with Jim Kershner, April 3, 2018, recording and transcript in possession of the author; "Light-rail Cost Soars $1 Billion," The Seattle Times, December 13, 2000, p. A1; "Chief Operating Officer Named Acting Sound Transit Executive Director," Sound Transit news release, January 25, 2001; Chris McGann, "Sound Transit Concealed Light-Rail Costs For Years," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 4, 2001, p. 1; "Sound Transit Costs Story Incorrect," Ibid., May 10, 2001, p. 1; Peter Rogoff interview with Jim Kershner, May 7, 2018, audio recording and transcript in possession of the author; Dave Earling interview with Jim Kershner, September 10, 2018, audio recording and transcript in possession of the author; Greg Nickels interview with Jim Kershner, January 18, 2018, audio recording and transcript in possession of the author; Mike Lindblom, "Groundbreaking Today for Light-rail," The Seattle Times, November 8, 2003, p. B1; Mike Lindblom, "New Sound Transit Chief," Ibid., November 20, 2015, p. B1. This essay is condensed in part from: Jim Kershner and the HistoryLink Staff, Transit: The Story of Public Transportation in the Puget Sound Region (Seattle: HistoryLink/Documentary Media, 2019).

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