Sound Transit board members decided Thursday not to approve a full one-year contract renewal for CEO Peter Rogoff, who will be departing in the next few months.
The decision follows a surprise revelation in January that the agency faced a $6.5 billion shortfall, and tense discussions among board members about which transit projects could be delayed. A consultant report issued in August found management problems, including flaws in how the agency studied its soaring real estate costs, and staff not knowing when to expose bad news.
Rogoff will stay aboard until no later than May 31, or whenever the board can hire a new CEO, according to provisions read Thursday afternoon by board member Nancy Backus, the mayor of Auburn.
Chairperson Kent Keel said one factor was a conversation where Rogoff indicated he didn’t foresee staying past the end of 2022. Given the huge workload in the coming months, “I and others do not believe Sound Transit should wait until next year to begin a search for a new CEO,” Keel said.
Rogoff will get a 3.5% cost-of-living raise on Jan. 1, a year of severance pay and an $18,000 benefit for career transition, Thursday’s agreement says. Rogoff currently makes $379,600 a year.
A two-thirds supermajority of the 18-member board was needed to award the full extension through Dec. 31, 2022. Several members praised Rogoff but the board appears divided over his handling of bad cost news and project delays. They did agree on keeping him until spring.
The move followed a 90-minute closed-door executive session and a similar session weeks ago. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine, both board members, didn’t comment in open session.
Thursday’s decision to change leaders comes just nine days before the region celebrates new light rail stations at Northgate, Roosevelt and the U District, expected to attract 45,000 or more daily passengers.
“All but one of Sound Transit’s seven major construction projects are on time and performing on or below budget, putting the agency on a very solid path to nearly tripling the size of its light rail network over just the next three years while it continues to advance further expansions,” Keel said in praise of Rogoff.
The CEO still must grapple with the $6.5 billion funding gap to deliver voter-approved Sound Transit 3 projects, mainly from Ballard to West Seattle. ST3 is America’s largest transit expansion package, featuring 11 rail and bus extensions voters approved in 2016.
Spending from 2017-46 is estimated at $131 billion for present and future programs. ST3 is also mired in a cumbersome planning process, similar to other U.S. agencies, that’s failed to produce affordable route decisions in Seattle and a location for a vast maintenance base in south King County. The maintenance base choices include a $2.4 billion site atop the toxic Midway Landfill, or a location that would displace a church and small businesses in Federal Way.
“The realignment process was difficult and, at times, divisive,” Rogoff acknowledged in a message to staff Thursday. “There were stakeholders across the region with dramatically differing but strongly held views regarding our rapidly changing revenue and cost projections. We had detractors saying ‘I told you so’ at the same time as we had advocates who wanted us to just wish the problem away.”
The agency on Aug. 5 wrapped up tense negotiations over ST3 “realignment” by publishing delays for some projects, such as reaching downtown Everett by 2041 instead of 2036, or Ballard four years late in 2039 — and a quicker schedule if the agency finds or saves money.
Board member Claudia Balducci, a Metropolitan King County Council member from Bellevue, said earlier this year it was difficult for her to obtain full cost comparisons from staff, for purposes of exploring ways to avoid project delays.
But she praised Rogoff on Thursday for his efforts to manage multiple projects across the region. In her area, the light rail line to Bellevue and Overlake is on or ahead of schedule to open in mid-2023.
Members voted 14-3 to replace Rogoff early, rather than sign the standard one-year contract renewal. Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers voted no, but said, “I will support the peaceful transition in the board vote.”
His counterpart in Snohomish County, Everett Councilmember Paul Roberts, also voted no, and credited Rogoff for leading what he called the nation’s greenest transit agency. Pete von Reichbauer, a Metropolitan King County Council member from Federal Way, voted no without elaborating. Backus voted yes while saying, “If I thought my no vote would keep Peter from leaving, I’d vote no.”
Transit-board member Roger Millar, the state transportation secretary, lauded Rogoff for improving Sound Transit’s performance in racial equity while helping the agency grow into a planner and builder of multiple projects. Rogoff and executives have supported construction hiring programs for workers of color and a prison-to-hardhats path.
“Mr. Rogoff is going to be out on a high note,” compared to CEOs in similar situations, Millar said.
Rogoff called Sound Transit his most rewarding post in 40 years, and credited the staff of about 1,000 employees for its successes.
“The exhilaration never really wanes, but the exhaustion sometimes spikes,” Rogoff said at the board meeting. “I’ve heard from my industry colleagues that the average term of a transit chief executive is somewhere between four and five years, and I’m about to enter year seven.”
Rogoff, a former Federal Transit Administration chief, was recruited by a search firm and then-board Chairperson Constantine to take over in 2016. The board nearly fired him two years later, following allegations of abrasive behavior toward staff, but Rogoff underwent executive coaching and earned favorable board ratings.
Keel praised Rogoff for his ability to navigate federal funding. “He has worked closely with our congressional delegation as well as the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations to obtain unprecedented levels of federal funding,” Keel said.
Earlier Thursday, the board approved Chief Financial Officer Tracy Butler’s refinance of $3.5 billion in federal loans, at 1.9% interest, to save a projected $810 million interest costs through 2046. That follows federal grants totaling $2 billion for Lynnwood and Federal Way lines that open in 2024.