Sound Transit announced Friday that its top choice for CEO is Julie Timm, who currently leads a smaller agency in Virginia’s capital city.
The Greater Richmond Transit Company employs 400 people and operates bus routes that serve 30,000 daily passengers.
Transit advocates in Virginia praised her open-door culture and attention to customers. Richmond buses have continued to charge zero fare since March 19, 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Timm is known as a highly collaborative leader who forges strong relationships with community groups and partners, and for building an agency culture focused on dedication to public service and equity,” Sound Transit said in a news release Friday.
She previously worked at WeGo Public Transit in Nashville, Tennessee, including oversight of major capital projects, and for Hampton Roads Transit in Norfolk, Virginia, Sound Transit said.
A final vote by the Sound Transit governing board, and release of Timm’s full contract, are scheduled June 23. The advertised salary is between $300,000 and $400,000.
Sound Transit Chair Kent Keel said Timm brought up Richmond’s free fares in talks with the CEO selection team, in the context of Sound Transit’s own debates over fare policies.
“I was impressed with the knowledge she had of us, being from the East Coast. It showed she was doing her homework,” Keel said.
In addition, she rode light rail from Northgate to SeaTac before a finalist interview Tuesday, mentioned different stations and how people get to the trains, and asked what Sound Transit does regarding homeless people aboard transit, according to Keel. He said the talks didn’t go into depth about that issue and Timm didn’t make suggestions.
“I’m confident she’s not going to leave anything undone,” Keel said.
If confirmed, Timm will be charged with managing ST3, the voter-approved plan to build 12 rail and bus extensions serving 750,000 daily passengers across Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.
It’s a huge step from the Richmond agency, which is a bit smaller than Everett-based Community Transit. Richmond operates only about 120 buses on a $60 million yearly budget, according to the National Transit Database, compared to $3 billion at Sound Transit and 158,000 riders pre-pandemic — just one of 10 Puget Sound transit providers.
Timm led a capital project in Nashville, though “admittedly, we see that’s not her long suit,” Keel said. But no CEO is superior in all areas, and Sound Transit already has a large and experienced executive team of capital specialists, in an agency four times the size of Richmond, he said. “We can lean into her leadership skills. She knows how to pull people together,” Keel said.
Virginia Transit Association’s deputy director Danny Plaugher has known Timm since 2009 and says:
“She has been really kind of a change agent here in Richmond. To be honest, the news [of her nomination] is a little shocking and depressing. You all are getting a high-quality leader.”
Plaugher said Timm is an empathetic leader who thinks outside the box. He said the Greater Richmond Transit Company had been in a “death spiral” but that Timm turned it around, in part by listening to the advocacy community in the region.
“For a lot of transit CEOs, sometimes because the advocacy community wants to push a little bit further, there’s this sense of animosity,” he said. “That was never the case with Julie. It was an open-door policy.”
Amelia Lightner has been an advocate for better transit in Richmond for 50 years. She doesn’t know Timm personally, but she said bus service has improved significantly in and around Richmond over the past several years, especially in lower income areas.
“Our transit system has improved,” said Lightner, a board member of RVA Rapid Transit, which advocates for better service in the Richmond area. “We now have bus service in a lot of areas that did not have transit before, especially in the depressed areas of Richmond.”
Lightner said the impact of making ridership free during the pandemic has been significant, especially as gas prices continue to rise. “Folks are really using the public transportation system,” she said.
When Timm was hired in 2019, she rode the bus and talked with passengers to learn about needs and concerns, such as bus stops with no bench and no shelter, according to an interview with Greater Greater Washington in D.C.
“My background is in biology, and science says people have a tendency to encode and to better remember their bad experiences,” she mentioned, as a reason to avoid draconian fare enforcement and provide more positive experiences on transit.
Friday’s introduction of Timm followed a Thursday announcement that the board had selected a nominee but only identified that person as “Candidate A.” Board chair Keel defended the search process, saying some qualified candidates might not apply and could risk losing jobs back home if their names became public earlier in the process.
While that method appears routine in transit agencies, many public entities do disclose their finalists or hold community forums. The Washington Coalition for Open Government criticized Sound Transit’s approach.
On Tuesday the three top candidates met with stakeholder groups who signed nondisclosure agreements. The organizations included the Transportation Choices Coalition and chambers of commerce, Keel said. “All these organizations represent the public. They were providing feedback,” he said. “It was the best way I could come up with for getting the public involved.” Transportation Choices receives financial support from transit agencies and contractors, while participating in campaigns, as well as educational activities to promote ridership.
If confirmed, Timm will succeed Peter Rogoff, who served as CEO from late 2015 until May 31, an era that included the passage of a 25-year Sound Transit 3 expansion plan, grand openings of three North Seattle stations in 2021, and the deterioration of downtown transit stations and escalators.