Sound Transit is a regional transit agency serving King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties with light rail, commuter rail, and express-bus service. Officially called the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA), it was created by the three participating county governments in 1993; residents approved funding in a 1996 vote. In 1999 Sound Transit began operating its first express-bus lines and commuter trains between Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett. The agency opened its first light-rail segment in Tacoma in 2003. After much delay, Seattle and King County got light rail in 2009, first between Tukwila and downtown Seattle, quickly followed by extension to Sea-Tac Airport later that year, with further extensions north to the University of Washington and south to Angle Lake in 2016. In 2008 a second phase was approved by voters that included planned stations south to Federal Way, north to Lynnwood, and east to Redmond. In 2016, voters approved a $54 billion third phase to extend light rail from 22 to 116 miles of track and increase bus and commuter-rail service.
Perhaps surprising for a regional transit agency in charge of a few bus and rail lines, Sound Transit's story is one of high drama, near failures, state supreme court cases, and federal inquisitions. The agency not only survived more than two decades of setbacks and near shutdowns, it won approval to continue expanding until at least 2041.
Missed Opportunities and Slow Starts
The Puget Sound region's complicated modern history with rail transit began with the rejection by King County voters of Forward Thrust bond measures in 1968 and 1970. Spearheaded by civic leader James Ellis (b. 1921), Forward Thrust was a package of bond measures to fund a robust subway system in Seattle and the surrounding suburbs, along with a variety of other infrastructure projects. Though voters approved many Forward Thrust projects, they twice rejected funding for rail transit. Federal funding initially earmarked for a Seattle subway went instead to Atlanta to build the MARTA rail system. The Forward Thrust setback cooled the region's rail appetite for nearly two decades. In effect it became political road-kill.
In 1988, Greg Nickels (b. 1955), then a King County councilmember (and later Seattle mayor), co-sponsored an advisory measure asking voters if they wanted light rail. Nearly 70 percent said yes, creating new political momentum for regional rail transit.
Two years later, the Washington State Legislature, led by Representative Ruth Fisher (1925-2005), took an essential step toward making light rail a reality by passing the High Capacity Transit Act. Doing so created a Joint Regional Policy Committee to coordinate efforts between King, Pierce, and Snohomish County transit agencies; funded the work; and gave the counties the local taxing authority necessary to fund high-capacity transit. The counties created a $13.2-billion plan for regional light rail, commuter trains, and express buses, and in 1993 the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority was born.
The next step was to ask voters for funding. The RTA board decided to split the plan into two phases. In a March 1995 special election, the board ran a ballot measure asking voters to fund a $6.7 billion first phase. But again voters rejected transit. The board, led by Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel, went back to the drawing board, held hundreds of public meetings, and put together a scaled-back first phase.
Voters Say Yes to Rail
Dubbed Sound Move, the $3.9-billion plan called for 22 miles of light rail from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport through Seattle to the University of Washington, and a separate 1.6-mile line from the Tacoma Dome to downtown Tacoma. The Central Link line from the airport to UW was projected to cost $1.7 billion and be completed by 2006. Sound Move would also create the Sounder commuter-train system running on existing track between Tacoma and Seattle and Everett and Seattle, as well as 18 new express-bus lines. On November 5, 1996, Puget Sound voters finally approved a rail-transit plan. With funding approved, the RTA board selected staffer Bob White as the agency's executive director.
Recognizing that "Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority" was a mouthful, the board adopted "Sound Transit" as the agency's "popular" name in August 1997. The Central Link alignment became the centerpiece of Sound Transit's efforts over the next few years. The agency worked to map the best potential route, procure land for construction staging and stations. It also planned Regional Express bus routes and Sounder commuter-train service.
The First Red Flags
Less than three years after voters approved Sound Move there were already signs of trouble. In February 1999 The Seattle Times reported that Sound Transit was unlikely to get as much federal funding as had been expected when a 1995 funding plan was developed. That meant it would take several years longer than planned to eventually get light rail all the way to Northgate, a second-phase goal.
By itself that might have been a relatively minor hiccup, but it was the first in a years-long series of financial and planning missteps that nearly derailed Sound Transit. People inside and outside the agency referred to that period from 1999 to about 2003 as the dark days.
Shortly after the funding shortfalls became apparent, the Sound Transit board adopted its preferred Central Link alignment. It was far from finalized -- the agency still needed to complete a final impact statement and get approval from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). But it was a key step toward making light rail real. The plan called for elevated rail from the airport to Rainier Beach, street-level rail through the Rainier Valley, a tunnel through Beacon Hill, street-level rail through SoDo, and a tunnel through the International District, downtown, First Hill, and Capitol Hill to the University of Washington.
The hits kept coming, though. In June 1999, the agency announced the estimated cost of building light rail would be hundreds of millions more than expected, admitting publicly for the first time that it might not be possible to build the full first phase as promised. Light-rail director Paul Bay explained "that new elements added to the plan in February, combined with unanticipated increases in land prices, have driven the estimated cost above the project's $1.8 billion budget" (Murakami).
Luckily for Sound Transit, 1999 wasn't just a parade of bad news. By September, the agency began service on nine of the planned 18 Regional Express bus routes. In November, the board unanimously approved the final alignment for Central Link from the airport to UW. With that decided, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014), King County Executive Ron Sims (b. 1948), and a coalition of environmental, labor, and business leaders headed to Washington, D.C., to lobby the FTA for hundreds of millions in funding for light rail.
Unhappy Voters and Residents
But good news remained the exception for Sound Transit as the new decade began. Days before the board voted on the final light-rail alignment, voters approved Initiative 695, a ballot measure from anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman (b. 1965). Among other things, I-695 created a flat $30 car-tab fee, reducing the revenue the state collected from the motor-vehicle excise tax. Doing so blew a hole in Sound Transit's funding plan for Sound Move. A King County Superior Court judge overturned I-695 because it violated the single-subject rule for ballot measures. The state legislature passed a bill the following year reinstating flat $30 car tabs, with the caveat that Sound Transit could collect its higher tax from residents in its taxing district. Through 2017 Eyman would go after Sound Transit funding two more times with initiatives for a flat $30 car tab, without success.
Communities throughout the Sound Transit taxing district were voicing their dissatisfaction with the Central Link plan. Tukwila officials were upset that there wouldn't be a stop at the Southcenter mall. Residents in North King County complained they were paying for rail without receiving its benefits, since the line would end at UW for the time being. In south Seattle's Rainier Valley, residents angry that they were getting street-level trains while most track was elevated or underground formed the group Save Our Valley. They worried light rail would endanger pedestrians, interfere with automobile traffic, and be excessively loud. At the same time, a pro-light-rail group called the Rainier Valley Transit Advisory Council formed to advocate for light rail whether on street or underground. Save Our Valley filed a lawsuit against Sound Transit, arguing the rail alignment would disproportionately impact minorities. A U.S. District Court Judge dismissed the suit in 2001.
Federal Support and Bulging Costs
As 2000 rolled on, it became clear that Central Link was going to cost significantly more than expected. Sound Transit executive director of planning, environment, and project development Ric Ilgenfritz explained in 2017 that a combination of inexperience, optimism, and communication breakdown lead to the massive cost overruns:
"In an effort to be on time, [Sound Transit] wasn't very disciplined about scope. There was a lot of internal lack of functional communication. Nobody was putting all the pieces together" (Ilgenfritz interview).
Still, the FTA moved forward with a commitment of $500 million for Central Link and in September forwarded the funding proposal to Congress for a standard 60-day comment period. There was no mention of potential cost overruns at the time.
Sound Transit's hope was that the market would compensate for the expanded scope and contractor bids would reign in the budget. That did not happen. In November, news broke that the lowest bid for the tunnel from downtown to UW was nearly $200 million over budget. Ilgenfritz recalled, "The board was surprised, the legislature was surprised, the media was surprised. That's never a good thing" (Ilgenfritz interview)
Sound Transit's light-rail director Paul Bay resigned and board members put tunneling plans on hold while they scrambled to figure out a plan B. The FTA indicated that a revamped light rail plan might result in a change in funding.
In September 2000, the first Sounder service began between Seattle and Tacoma. In October, the agency hired former Snohomish County deputy executive Joni Earl (b. 1953) as chief operating officer. It was serendipitous -- Earl would soon become CEO and is largely credited with saving Sound Transit.
One of Earl's first tasks as COO was to figure out just what shape the budget was in. She found things were even worse than expected. As the year closed, news broke that Central Link was $1 billion over budget and would take three years longer to deliver than promised.
Funding Gained, Funding Lost
Despite the looming cloud of budget overruns, 2001 started off positively. On the final day of the Clinton administration, outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater signed a full funding grant agreement (FFGA) committing $500 million to Central Link. Congressional Republicans, led by Representative Hal Rogers of Kentucky, cried foul. Rogers, the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee chair, had requested that Slater not sign the FFGA to give the new administration time to evaluate Sound Transit's budget troubles.
Just days after Sound Transit received the FFGA, the board asked director Bob White to resign. He agreed, saying, according to a Sound Transit news release, "that new leadership, unencumbered by past issues and decisions, is needed to position the agency to restore public confidence to succeed with the Link light rail project" ("Sound Transit Executive Director ...").
Earl dove in head-first as acting CEO. She recalled, "I had five days that were 24-hour days ... There was so much at stake and it felt pretty precarious. I was fearful a lot. You just didn't know what shoe was going to drop next" (Earl interview).
It turned out the next shoe drop came from Rep. Rogers, who summoned Earl to Washington, D.C., to be grilled by the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee. Longtime U.S. Representative Norm Dicks (b. 1940), a Sound Transit supporter representing areas of Pierce and Kitsap counties, sat with Earl as she answered questions about the agency's plans to get back on track and why it deserved federal support. At the end of the session, it was unclear if federal support would continue. Rogers said his decision would be based on results of an investigation of Sound Transit by the Office of the Inspector General that winter.
The Inspector General report was not kind. Released in early April 2001, it admonished Sound Transit for lack of due diligence around budgeting and cost estimates and recommended that the FTA hold off on providing grant money. The report estimated the planned light rail would actually cost $4.1 billion. The following day, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta (b. 1931) announced Sound Transit would not get federal funds for light rail. Thanks to behind-the-scenes work by U.S. Senator Patty Murray (b. 1950), however, the FTA agreed not to redistribute the $500 million earmarked for Sound Transit, giving the agency time to get its act together.
With the full airport-to-UW route now well out of financial reach, Sound Transit began working on a shorter version that would at least get something built. A popular choice would have been to build the segment from SoDo (south of downtown) to UW first. Serving downtown, First Hill, Capitol Hill, and the university, that would have the highest ridership of any segment. But because it required so much tunneling, some of it very deep underground and therefore risky, it also would cost the most. Instead, the Sound Transit board voted 14-2 to build south first, from Westlake Park downtown to the airport. The 14-mile line would cost $2.1 billion and be complete in 2009.
In addition to reshaping the project scope, Earl, now officially appointed by the Board as CEO instead of interim CEO, was working to reshape the organization to prevent a repeat of past mistakes. Working with the motto "optimism is not our friend," she said she always wanted to under-promise and over-deliver:
"I told staff, 'If you see a problem you have to flag it. Nobody's going to get fired for identifying a problem. But they're going to get fired if they hide a problem'" (Earl interview).
Earl also worked to fix the communication breakdowns that contributed to the massive cost overruns, and she instituted new systems for project controls and cost and risk estimates. Earl said the agency essentially took the Inspector General's list of problems and worked through it to correct each one.
More Lawsuits, More Inspections
In February 2002 an anti-rail group called Sane Transit sued Sound Transit, alleging that the massive reduction in project scope required the agency to put the issue to another public vote. The suit also sought an injunction against agency spending. Sane Transit leaders included former King County councilmember Maggi Fimia, Bellevue businessman Kemper Freeman Jr. (b. 1941), and former KING Broadcasting public-affairs director Emory Bundy, among others. The courts ultimately decided that Sound Transit had legal authority for the change in scope.
Despite the lawsuit, Sound Transit pushed forward on Central Link. In July 2002, it again applied to the FTA for the $500 million grant. The following month, the FTA gave Sound Transit permission to move to the final design stage for light rail. In September, auditors from the Office of the Inspector General returned to Seattle to again evaluate the agency. The auditors were no less skeptical than they had been the year prior. Ahmad Fazel, then Sound Transit's light-rail director (he would later become executive director of engineering, construction, and design) recalled of the auditors:
"Every day they came to work asking questions and looking at our documentation. They sent a dummy invoice through our system to make sure we could process it on time. That's how low their confidence level was at times" (Fazel interview).
An End to the Dark Days
As 2003 progressed, it became clear the auditors were happier with Sound Transit than they had been earlier. In May, during a congressional hearing, Transportation Secretary Mineta told Senator Murray that he no longer had reservations about Sound Transit. July brought the Inspector General's second report, which gave the agency a stamp of approval. A few days later, the FTA submitted the $500 million grant to Congress for the 60-day review period. Keeping the success streak alive, Sound Transit opened the 1.6-mile Tacoma Link light rail between downtown and the Tacoma Dome in August of that year.
Though there was some grumbling in Congress about the $500 million FTA grant, Sound Transit finally got its full funding grant agreement for Central Link in November 2003. After nearly nine years of hurdles, Sound Transit wasted no time getting to work on the project. Earl noted, "We broke ground within a week of getting the grant agreement" (Earl interview).
Capping off the mostly positive year, Sound Transit opened the Sounder commuter-train line between Everett and Seattle in December 2003.
With construction underway on light rail and something to focus on besides a sense of impending doom, employee morale improved significantly. The board was feeling confident as well. Just a few months after breaking ground on Central Link, the agency started work designing the second phase of light rail. Known as ST2, it would expand light rail north to Lynnwood, east to Bellevue, and south to Star Lake near Federal Way, as well as expand Sounder train and express bus service. The agency would once again have to ask voters for taxing authority to make the multi-billion package a reality.
Progress and Hurdles
The following years were consumed by construction and ST2 planning. Occasionally Sound Transit had to lift its head up to deal with hiccups ranging from minor to major. In February 2005, light-rail construction was briefly delayed when workers at a construction site in Tukwila unearthed 900 Native American artifacts, including rocks from a hearth and various tools.
In what would prove a fateful decision, the state legislature decided in the spring of 2006 that the $11 billion ST2 package would go to the ballot as part of a single measure along with more than $7 billion for highway construction. Known as the roads and transit measure, it was at the time the largest tax package in the state's history.
In February 2007, tragedy struck the Central Link project. A supply train carrying workers at the Beacon Hill Station job site crashed. A 49-year-old construction worker named Michael Bruce Merryman was killed. Another worker was injured. Earl counted it among the lowest moments of her time as CEO: "That was a sad, sad day" (Earl interview).
In May, the Sound Transit board unanimously approved the final ST2 package for the roads and transit vote. But opposition to the ballot measure was mounting from the left and the right. Kemper Freeman and Sane Transit opposed spending billions on transit. The Sierra Club opposed spending billions on highways. On November 6, 2007, Proposition 1 lost by a wide margin.
Earl remembered, "I didn't think it'd have a chance, but I didn't think we'd get our butts kicked so bad" (Earl interview). Still, there was a feeling shared by Earl and some board members that it was roads that brought ST2 down and that they could have won on their own. Testing that theory, the board, now chaired by Nickels, began planning for an ST2 stand-alone vote in 2008.
Voters proved them right. Though the country was sliding into economic turmoil, voters approved the $18 billion expansion package Sound Transit had put together. Had ST2 failed, it might have marked the end of Sound Transit. Earl said, "We would've had to lay off staff because so many of our other projects were wrapping up. ... I think we would've tried to at least get light rail to the airport" (Earl interview).
The excitement following ST2's passage was brief. Soon the impacts of the so-called Great Recession hit Sound Transit's budget. According to Ilgenfritz, the agency's long-range revenue forecast dropped by as much as 30 percent. As a result, it had to scale back, removing several park-and-rides, and planned rail extensions to Federal Way and Redmond.
Seattle Finally Gets Light Rail
Though voters had already given Sound Transit permission to look beyond the Sound Move plan, the agency was still focused on getting Central Link finished. Finally, on July 18, 2009, more than 40 years after county voters originally rejected Jim Ellis's Forward Thrust vision for rail transit, light rail opened between Westlake Center and International Boulevard in Tukwila. Opening day saw major celebrations, with more than 30,000 first-day riders trying the system and cheering from the platforms.
Excitement was tempered, however, by delays in completing the airport station. Funding shortfalls and prolonged negotiations with the Port of Seattle over station placement prevented Sound Transit having the airport station ready for the grand opening. In its absence, the press took to calling Central Link the train to nowhere. On December 19, six months after the grand opening, Sound Transit opened the airport station.
Once Central Link opened, the agency was consumed with ST2 planning, construction of the light-rail extension to Capitol Hill and University of Washington, and, of course, day-to-day operation of its two light-rail systems, two commuter train lines, and expanding bus system.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the history, there were problems along the way. In September 2010, Kemper Freeman and a pro-roads group in Bellevue sued the state to block light rail's expansion to the Eastside via the Interstate 90 bridge across Lake Washington. They argued that it was a violation of the state constitution to use the bridge for non-highway purposes because it was paid for with gas taxes. The state supreme court rejected the lawsuit in 2013.
One of the agency's worst moments came in April 2014. Earl was tripped, fell, and hit her head, leading to blood-vessel leakage in her brain. In June, she officially took a medical leave of absence from the agency. Deputy CEO Mike Harbour took over as acting CEO. Earl was never able to actively return to her role as head of Sound Transit.
More Expansion and Plans for the Future
In May 2015, Earl announced plans to retire once the University Link extension was complete the following year. Peter Rogoff, the FTA's transportation undersecretary, replaced her. He began in January 2016, in the midst of planning for a massive third expansion, ST3.
Two months later Sound Move, the first phase approved back in 1996, was finally completed as University Link opened, extending light rail north from Westlake to Husky Stadium at the University of Washington with a stop in Capitol Hill en route. The new stations were immediately popular, with ridership nearly doubling from the get-go. In September, the Angle Lake station opened south of the airport, further boosting ridership.
The ridership surge could not have come at a better time for Sound Transit. When the board unanimously approved the ST3 package in June, the estimated price tag was an eye-popping $54 billion. Once again, Sound Transit would be asking voters to pass the largest tax package in state history.
Because of its massive cost, ST3 drew plenty of opposition. Kemper Freeman helped fund a No on Prop 1 campaign with more than $200,000 in donations. The Seattle Times editorially encouraged people to vote no. Some state legislators voiced concern over the cost. But opponents did not sway enough voters. On November 8, 2016, ST3 passed with 54 percent of the vote.
The approved ST3 package, scheduled for completion in 2041, called for an additional 62 miles of light rail and 37 more stations, along with expanded Sounder commuter train and Regional Express bus service. If completed as planned over the next quarter-century, light rail will eventually stretch from Everett to Tacoma and east to Issaquah and Redmond; Seattle will get a second line from West Seattle to Ballard; and the region will finally have a mass transit system exceeding the dreams of Forward Thrust.