Sound Transit CEO considers outside contractors to run Highway 520 buses

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Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff is considering hiring private contractors to drive four Sound Transit Express routes. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff is considering hiring private contractors to drive four Sound Transit Express routes between the Eastside and Seattle, prompting quick outrage from labor leaders who called the move a threat to existing union jobs.

Rogoff spent part of Friday meeting with leaders at Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 587, seeking to dispel tension.

“We’re going to work through this with the labor partners. It was a cordial, honest exchange,” he said afterward. Local 587 members work at King County Metro Transit, which operates the four routes on Highway 520 under contract to Sound Transit.

“We have zero interest in not having labor work on our service,” Rogoff said. “That’s who we are.”

Rogoff hopes the winning bidder will supply space to park and maintain buses because Metro’s transit bases are full — but he said it’s not a sure thing that a company will emerge to accomplish that.

Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer at the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, said she confronted Rogoff on Thursday after hearing about the search for private providers.


“He was like, ‘We just need more [capacity] than we can get, so we’re going to throw things open and try to get it,’” Grant said. “I said I was absolutely not fine with that … This is a hard ‘no’ from the labor movement.”

In a message to transit-board members Saturday, Local 587 President Kenneth Price said: “This is a true ‘what the hell’ moment and Mr. Rogoff is naive to believe that you as Board Members of Sound Transit are willing to break with ATU 587 and betray our multigenerational relationship … The considerable time and financial resources Local 587 and ATU International invested in the successful passage of ST3 seems to have been blatantly disregarded by ST’s unscrupulous CEO.”

ST3 is the tax-increase measure that voters passed in 2016 for this $54 billion expansion plan featuring eight rail and two bus corridors.

King County Executive Dow Constantine declined to comment on Sound Transit’s request for proposals, and he referred questions to Metro, which stated Friday: “We’re aware of the RFP, and we are working with Sound Transit to understand its implications.”

Bids are due April 12. Politicians on the 18-member transit board haven’t voted yet on whether they’ll sign any contract.

Board members can expect considerable pressure, after years of standing with transit- and construction-union members at grand-opening events.


“My sense of this board, without talking with them, is the board would be collaborative with labor unions,” said Board Chairman John Marchione, who is Redmond’s mayor.

Privatization fights have flared around the country, where the national ATU points to proposals in Washington, D.C., for competitive contracts, and a controversy in Sarasota, Florida, where, amid union opposition, county commissioners last week paused an outsourcing plan meant to cut costs.

A would-be 520 bus contractor must guarantee it can park and repair 60 standard and articulated coaches, bid documents say. Sound Transit would continue to buy and own the buses. Rogoff said his agency will increase its fleet soon.

Regional congestion slows the buses, so more are needed to keep frequent service, as often as every five minutes. “You’ve got to put more buses on the street, to provide the service customers are expecting,” he said.

Metro acknowledges on its website, “we’re running out of space.” Seattle had to postpone some city-funded Metro service additions last year for this reason.

Rogoff said Friday that in talks with Metro, staff said the agency would need to drive empty buses between bases, and bill Sound Transit for those trips, to make the fleet fit the bases. He said space was a bigger issue than the expense of Metro’s operating fees that Sound Transit pays, of $163 per bus-operating hour in 2017-18.


Possible competitors for the contract, MV Transportation, TransDev, and RATP Group, took part in a meeting Feb. 13, along with Ferndale-based Bellair Airporter Shuttle and First Transit, which already operates public Community Transit buses with union employees. Public-owned Pierce Transit also participated.

Local 587’s Price has previously criticized smaller public-private partnerships, such as Metro hiring nonunion drivers to operate shuttle-vans between its Eastgate Park-and-Ride station and hillside Bellevue neighborhoods. Local 587, the nation’s largest transit union with 4,100 members, has secured a top-driver wage of $34.40 an hour, and $43.31 an hour for a lead mechanic, in its Metro contract.

The issue of contracting out has been developing for months, barely noticed.

In brief remarks to the Sound Transit board Dec. 20, Rogoff explained he would advertise a five-year contract, with possible options to last 10 years. Private contractors would take over 14 buses on two routes in March 2020, followed by 41 buses on two more routes in September 2020, he said.

“That will enable us to at least handle the interim capacity needs,” he said, until Sound Transit can make progress building its own bus base.

Chairman Marchione said Friday he recalls Rogoff’s remarks about base capacity, but not hearing that companies would bid to operate buses.

The affected lines are Route 540, downtown Kirkland to University District; Route 541, Overlake-U District; Route 542, Redmond-U District; and Route 545, Redmond-downtown Seattle; which carry 12,310 daily passengers. Another 24 ST Express lines are operated by Community Transit, Metro, or Pierce Transit.

Grant said bus-driving jobs should remain unionized. Though a labor-harmony agreement would allow a union to try to organize a private company’s workers, it wouldn’t guarantee unionization, she said. “Saying that there will be the opportunity to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into winning another campaign to unionize is not what we want.”

But Rogoff said it would be ludicrous to expect the outcome to be a nonunion workforce to operate these express bus lines, especially in the Northwest region.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. . Staff reporter Mike Lindblom covers transportation for The Seattle Times.
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or dbeekman@seattletimes.com. . Seattle Times staff reporter Daniel Beekman covers Seattle city government and local politics.