6 months in, Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm sits down with Sully
Mar 28, 2023, 5:03 AM | Updated: 9:28 am
(Photos from Sound Transit)
Julie Timm is passionate about transit. She is thoughtful. She took the time to answer all my questions during our 30-minute sit-down interview.
I have pulled longer chunks to share with you to make sure there was nothing lost in translation, but you can click on the full unedited interview on this page.
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I’ll start with something I wasn’t expecting her to say. “I tend to be very fiscally conservative,” she said.
I had her repeat that to make sure I heard her correctly.
“I believe that every penny counts,” Timm said. “I believe that there are ways that we can do it better. I challenge the team on how they spend, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to spend less. It means I want to be very intentional about how we spend to make sure that we’re doing it right. Sometimes that means we need to spend a bit more. It means we need to spend more on security. It means we need to spend more on trash cans. But if we spend more on trash cans, it means that the entire asset is managed better. And over the long run, we will save money.
“By switching out the light bulbs to LED means we will save money. Looking at it long-term, the economic feasibility of it is the way we’re going to make this thing last and be sustainable. I think we’ve got down the equity side,” Timm said. “We’re getting there. It’s not perfect. I think we got done with the environmental side. Again, not perfect. We’re getting there.
“The economic side is one that I lean into hard. I just hired a new CFO. And he and I are working closely on how much we put our money into ops, what our staffing is, how much money we put into our vertical conveyances, and making sure that we make the right decision. Sometimes that means paying more now so that we have better maintenance long-term and how we invest our dollars,” Timm said.
“But it is incredibly important that we look at how we manage and pay for our system and look for alternative ways of funding it through business partnerships through community partnerships. It can’t be all the government,” Timm said. “These are all issues that we need to be very conscious of. We just can’t be Santa Claus to everyone.”
Refreshing, especially from someone in charge of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.
She chuckled when I asked her about the ‘Seattle Process.’
“Oh, yes, yes,” she said. “The Seattle Process is quite interesting.”
But she appreciates that people are passionate about getting it right, even if it means taking more time.
“I would say that same frustration is shared inside the agency. We all feel the same way. We want to get it built. We want to be using it. We want to extend. We want to make sure we’re connecting up to Snohomish and down to Tacoma,” Timm said. “We want to get the spine built out. You will find no lack of that desire inside this agency either. And yet, as we build it, whatever it is that we build will be here for 50 to 100 years. It is the groundwork, the framework for all the mobility that we’re gonna be building in the future.
“It’s frustrating to take an extra year, an extra two years to design it right to understand what we’re doing, but it’s needed,” Timm said. “It really is needed, and as the environment has changed as our society has changed from what it was three years ago, pre-pandemic, to now, it puts a different lens on the decisions that we’re making and how we’re serving our community, how we’re connecting people.
“It’s frustrating to have to feel like we’re taking a couple of steps back. But if it means that we’re doing the right thing for the next 50 to 100 years, it’s worth the two steps back. It is painful, and we all hate it, trust me,” Timm said. “My team is pulling their hair out because they want to move forward desperately. But they also recognize how right this is to take the time to do it right.”
Timm explained that Sound Transit is in a transition from a building agency to an operational agency, and that takes a 180-degree shift in perspective to focus on the rider experience and communication. She knows the trains need to be clean. She understands that many people don’t feel safe on the trains. She also knows that communication is a huge challenge for the agency.
“We as Sound Transit need to lean into that expectation, and we need to do better. We need to get our stations cleaner. We need to put trash cans out. We need to pay more attention to the environment where people are going through our stations or on our trains,” Timm said. “That’s just a way that we have to start using a different lens for doing business. And it has to be about the people who are riding.”
So what about the new security and enforcement?
“It gives me hope that if we’re clear in our communication about where the fair paid zones are, if we’re clear with having more security, and more fair ambassadors, and more station attendants there to help people through the system, that we will get that same level of compliance in our system as well,” Timm said. “We just have to be able to communicate where and how people pay, and then show the expectation and do it in a Seattle way. And my hope is that we will see higher fare compliance as we get more security, more fare ambassadors, more station attendants, more crisis communications and crisis intervention staff to be able to help people in crisis.”
How many new officers or ambassadors?
“It’s not a lot. Right now, the numbers are about 14 of the fare ambassadors,” Timm said. “And for the station attendants, we would have two attendants at a time at Northgate and Westgate as examples as our pilot, but we will be looking to increase that as we move forward. We have to start somewhere.”
Timm didn’t have too much new information on the changing schedules for Seattle to Bellevue, Bellevue to Redmond, or Northgate to Lynnwood, but she shared this on the concrete problem that delayed the rails across the floating bridge.
You might have forgotten, but there was a problem with the concrete plinths that hold up the tracks. They had to be replaced.
“About 75%, plus or minus, have been taken out. We have the new ones. It took a while for us to make sure the engineering, training, and construction to do inspection to do it was all lined up to our satisfaction. It was recently approved,” Timm said. “Now we’re seeing how fast they can put them up. And once we see how fast they can put them up and maintain that quality, then we’ll know what is going to get done.
“Right now, we’re targeting to schedule so that we’ll be able to open that section of light rail in 2025, which is very painfully far away. I get that, and we’re doing everything. We can do it faster, but we don’t want to compromise that quality,” Timm said.
As it stands now, the Bellevue to Redmond section is scheduled to open in about a year. The Northgate to Lynnwood extension is scheduled to open in the fall of 2024.
Want to find out about escalators and other things? Be sure to listen to the raw interview.