CHOKEPOINTS

Departing Sound Transit CEO looks back on stewardship of nation’s largest transit expansion

May 31, 2022, 7:11 AM
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Peter Rogoff (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It’s the end of the line for Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. Tuesday is officially his last day at the helm of the agency.

Peter Rogoff led Sound Transit through its golden age of expansion, but his six and a half years at the top were also fraught with controversy — and even tragedy. When Rogoff took over, light rail only extended from downtown Seattle to the airport. The Sound Transit Board was hustling to finish ST-2 and create a new $54-billion expansion plan in ST-3. Rogoff was charged with finalizing that plan and selling it to voters in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties. It passed with 54% of the vote, though Pierce County actually voted it down.

Rogoff has overseen the openings of light rail to the University of Washington, up to Northgate in October of last year, and the opening of service south of the airport. Expansions to Federal Way, Bellevue, and Redmond will open over the next two years.

But his agency was blamed for the fatal Amtrak train crash that killed three and injured 57 others. He nearly lost his job in 2018 when allegations of a hostile work environment surfaced from staff. He ended up going to counseling to ease his rough people skills.

ST-3 is way over budget and well behind schedule, but I don’t think you can blame Rogoff for all of that, though an outside auditor found the agency often mishandled cost estimates of projects and failed to include market conditions.

That said, Rogoff told the board last week that this has been his best assignment. “I had a bunch of highfalutin federal jobs in D.C. before Dina and I moved here, but serving as the Sound Transit CEO has, by far, been the most challenging but also the most rewarding experience of my career,” he said.

Though he admits, it didn’t start out that way. “I distinguished myself in my very first CEO report to you all by mispronouncing the name Mukilteo,” he told the board. “I will always remember how I felt when I realized that on my first day, in front of everybody, I couldn’t pronounce the name of a local town.”

And he looks back on overseeing the largest transit expansion in America with pride. “We as staff knew we were setting ourselves on an ambitious path, but in the years that followed 2016, as we sought to both complete ST-2 and launch the fullness of ST-3, we came to understand that our plans weren’t just ambitious, but they, in fact, were a little bit audacious,” he said.

Rogoff told the board that his goal was to always give the board the truth, no matter the consequences, and that led to the work over the last two years to rework the ST-3 project once it became clear that they couldn’t be produced on time and on budget.

He pushed the board to realign expectations, even though that meant delaying projects to Everett, Tacoma, West Seattle, and Ballard.

That honesty is something Pierce County executive Bruce Dammeier appreciated. “Throughout all of that, you were exceedingly professional,” he told Rogoff. “Despite the fact that you and I didn’t agree on some things, I never felt like you didn’t honor and respect me for my role and try to understand my views.”

Rogoff said he has enjoyed his time here so much that he and his wife plan to stay in the area.

The board is finalizing the candidates to replace him. There should be a final candidate announcement next month. That person will inherit a transit agency in transition, scramble to fulfill the promises of ST-3, and attempt to solve the fare enforcement issue — how to make sure that riders are actually paying for their trips.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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Departing Sound Transit CEO looks back on stewardship of nation’s largest transit expansion