Editorials

Sound Transit CEO who makes $328,545 is in line for new deal. Pierce County leaders are rightly concerned

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff speaks to the media about work being done so that light rail trains can travel over the I-90 floating bridge (in background) in this June 2017 photo. The Sound Transit board voted last week to negotiate terms of a new contract with Rogoff, who took over leadership of the agency in 2016.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff speaks to the media about work being done so that light rail trains can travel over the I-90 floating bridge (in background) in this June 2017 photo. The Sound Transit board voted last week to negotiate terms of a new contract with Rogoff, who took over leadership of the agency in 2016. The Seattle Times

For Sound Transit, the metropolitan three-county public transportation agency whose support runs shallowest in Pierce County, the public-relations hits are starting to take a toll, like body blows on a big-money prizefighter.

Now more than ever, agency leadership must be subject to thorough oversight and full transparency — especially as plans speed forward to renew the contract of CEO Peter Rogoff by the end of 2018. Taxpayers and Sound Transit board members need better notification of key decisions.

Kudos to board members who are serious about their watchdog role. Notably, both “no” votes in last week’s 11-2 board decision to enter into contract negotiations with Rogoff were cast by Pierce County members.

Sound Transit’s reputation has been thumped the last two summers by the rising cost of bringing light-rail service to Lynnwood and Federal Way, with overruns totaling nearly $1 billion. The projected opening of the Lynnwood station was delayed six months, to mid-2024.

Then there’s the political black eye that won’t go away: Sound Transit’s use of an inflated vehicle-valuation formula to collect car-tab revenue.

Now comes the embarrassment of having to retrofit the University of Washington station with 11 new escalators and two staircases. Recurring escalator breakdowns have caused long lines and delays underground.

At the same meeting last week where the escalator problems were aired, board members retreated to executive session to privately discuss Rogoff’s contract, currently $328,545 a year. After emerging, they considered a motion to create a subcommittee to work out terms of a new deal — a motion that wasn’t on the agenda 24 hours earlier. It was later added when some members complained about scant public notice.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier voted no, expressing reservations about whether Rogoff is the right leader to carry out the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 package approved by voters (but not a majority in Pierce County) two years ago.

“This is the singular most significant decision we make, choosing the person who will lead this organization and deliver on the most significant public capital investment this region has seen in its history,” Dammeier said.

University Place Mayor Kent Keel also voted no. He said it signified his displeasure with agency administrators’ failure to help broker a car-tab compromise and provide relief to vehicle owners.

Others, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, share Dammeier’s and Keel’s concerns about the short advance notice for this decision. But they still voted to take steps toward a new contract with Rogoff.

Is he best suited to build out a mass-transit system linking Pierce, King and Snohomish counties? Can South Sounders rely on Rogoff and his team to meet critical deadlines, including extending the light-rail “spine” to Tacoma by 2030 and Sounder commuter trains to DuPont by 2036?

We’ll let the experts answer those questions. Washington Transportation Secretary Roger Millar says he’s dealt with transit chiefs around the country and has found few agencies as well run as Sound Transit. Rogoff’s connections in the U.S. Department of Transportation, where he worked during the Obama administration, are surely useful in obtaining federal money.

Meanwhile, alarm bells have sounded over Rogoff’s management style, described in an investigation as “brusque and forceful;” the inquiry focused on incidents of profanity and demeaning treatment of employees in 2016, his first year on the job. Rogoff was denied a bonus this year because of it, but he’s since met with a performance coach, built positive relationships and improved workplace culture to the board’s satisfaction.

There’s a lot to consider in the Sound Transit boardroom. But this much we know: The public doesn’t get to vote on the well-paid executive to whom our multi-billion dollar regional transit network is entrusted. If they perceive that his new contract was fast-tracked in the shadows, it could be another blow to the agency’s credibility.

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