By Erica C. Barnett
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff, whose three-year contract is up for its first one-year renewal this year, is reportedly facing internal criticism from Sound Transit board members who have felt blindsided by revelations over the past year and a half that the Sound Transit 3 program, which includes light rail to West Seattle and Ballard, will cost far more than originally estimated.
Last week, the board met in executive (closed) session for nearly two hours before returning and, without explanation, removing Rogoff’s contract renewal from the agenda. The board has until the end of September to decide whether to renew Rogoff’s contract, although Rogoff himself can extend that timeline by requesting an additional month for board consideration.
Board members have raised concerns in the past about Rogoff’s on-the-job behavior, including alleged inappropriate behavior toward female employees and an abrasive communications style, and the board agreed in 2018 to pay for a $550-an-hour coach to improve his approach to leading the agency. What’s in question now, though, is his job performance.
For the first several years of Rogoff’s time as CEO, the high-profile elements of his job included passing the ST3 ballot measure and amassing federal funds for the agency during the Trump presidency, a time of great uncertainty for transit agencies. Now, the job is more about planning and implementation—building the system voters adopted on time and on budget (and more quotidian stuff like making sure elevators and escalators are usually in working order).
The report also concludes Sound Transit has a “cultural problem about not wanting to deliver bad news or daylight issues in a timely manner,” keeping board members in the dark and delaying action when things go wrong.
Over the past two years, the cost to build ST3 has ballooned, compromising Sound Transit’s ability to complete the program as planned. Last month, the board adopted a “realignment” strategy that calls for moving ahead with the projects in ST3 on a delayed schedule, but accelerating projects in a predetermined order if there are sufficient revenues to pay for them.
A new report on the agency’s cost estimating practices, which the board received earlier this month, hints at some board members’ concerns. The report, by Denver-based Triunity Inc, concludes that under Rogoff’s leadership, Sound Transit has been slow to make crucial decisions that could reduce costs (such as choosing a preferred alignment for light rail expansion), that “siloed” divisions within the agency failed to talk to each other while developing alignment alternatives, and that staffers are reluctant to share concerns with the board because of Sound Transit’s culture of keeping bad news under wraps.
For example, according to the report, the managers of the West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail Extension division didn’t communicate well the division that acquires property for construction and right-of-way. Ultimately, the report concludes, that lack of communication, as well as understaffing in Sound Transit’s right-of-way division, contributed to higher-than-expected land acquisition costs.
“We have to figure out how to make a safe space at the staff level, [for staff] to know that they can raise challenges. There’s a lot of work to be done.”—Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci
The report also concludes Sound Transit has a “cultural problem about not wanting to deliver bad news or daylight issues in a timely manner,” keeping board members in the dark and delaying action when things go wrong. “The daylighting issues on [the West Seattle-Ballard extension] have been significant and it is unclear to staff at times how, when, and where to daylight issues to agency leadership when scope, schedule, or budget change,” the report says. “There is a lack of an appropriate forum for communicating these issues with ST leadership on a regular basis and availability of time from leadership is limited due to other priorities or duties. This impacts crucial decision making for ST leadership and the Board.”
King County Councilmember (and ST Board member) Claudia Balducci said she was validated by Triunity’s recommendation that the agency buy up land more quickly to get ahead of escalating property values, as well as the suggestion that Sound Transit should decide on a preferred alignment sooner rather than moving many different possible alignments through successive phases of engineering, which adds costs and uncertainty.
But, she added, the report also includes concerns “that are far more systemic, like some of the findings around when and how the agency raises problems to the board. Unfortunately, that part is an echo to me of almost the Sound Move days,” when the cost to build the first phase of light rail nearly doubled. “A failure to raise serious problems to the board level and, on the board’s part, to grapple with those problems when they were raised, created an almost existential challenge then,” Balducci said. “We have to figure out how to make a safe space at the staff level, [for staff] to know that they can raise challenges. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
The board will take up Rogoff’s contract at its next full meeting on September 23, a meeting that could include another executive session. The contract requires an affirmative vote by two-thirds of the 18-member board.