Sound Transit’s board members could decide by June who will succeed CEO Peter Rogoff and oversee the nation’s biggest public transportation expansion program, for a salary of $300,000 to $400,000 per year.
“This is no small task, but it will be incredibly rewarding,” says a recruiting brochure.
Rogoff’s successor 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.
But the CEO also must tackle construction delays, broken escalators, dispiriting red tape, and political paralysis over fare enforcement. Besides those challenges, the agency’s next leader will be responsible for a finance plan, often beset by inflation and past estimating errors, that’s now $142 billion from 2017 to 2046, the period to build all Sound Transit 3 projects.
To survive, an executive should sustain Rogoff’s momentum in securing $5.5 billion in Federal Transit Administration grants and loans, plus an immaculate credit rating. Since leaving FTA in Washington, D.C., to work here in late 2015, Rogoff celebrated the opening of Northgate, Roosevelt and U District stations last fall, and championed construction-labor programs to hire women, minorities, and people leaving prison.
Above all, the position “requires incredible soft skills,” the search firm, CPS-HR of Sacramento, heard from staff and interest groups. “Most often, we heard about the need to listen,” a report said.
While relevant to any top executive, the feedback reflects worries by the board about reliving Rogoff’s first year, when colleagues complained to the human resources department about his abrasive manner. Rogoff apologized, narrowly escaped being fired, and completed executive coaching.
“I think it’s a great callout. A leader does need to have soft skills and we certainly need that in a CEO,” said board Chair Kent Keel, a council member from University Place near Tacoma. Keel mentioned a distinction between hard-charging “East Coast” and a subtler “West Coast” public agency culture.
The board’s CEO Search Committee and recruiters had narrowed the field to eight contenders as of Friday, out of more than 90 applicants, Keel said. A five-hour meeting is scheduled Monday to interview and discuss candidates online.
These talks will happen in closed-door “executive sessions,” allowed under Washington state law to evaluate the qualifications of applicants for public employment.
Keel said he hopes to identify one or two nominees in June, then conduct meet-and-greets with Sound Transit stakeholders, followed by a final board vote and contract negotiations in July.
This year Seattle Public Library named two finalists before hiring Tom Fay as chief librarian, while King County named three finalists for sheriff, before Executive Dow Constantine chose Patti Cole-Tindall last week. In 2018 Seattle named three out-of-town finalists for police chief, but Mayor Jenny Durkan hired Seattle police veteran Carmen Best, who left in summer 2020 while denouncing City Council police budget cuts. Seattle Public Schools named only one finalist for superintendent, Brent Jones.
Keel said the Sound Transit CEO search is more sensitive, because the applicants typically lack labor union protection, aren’t public figures, and can be instantly fired by boards or bosses back home, unlike an elected sheriff changing cities. Many people won’t even apply if there’s a chance of being exposed, Keel maintains.
Another angle worth watching is Sound Transit’s consensus that “Past experience in public transportation is helpful, but is certainly not required,” as stated in a candidate criteria profile by consultants. However, Rogoff often cites the need to become a mature agency focused on operations, and to improve response to crises such the Apple Cup light-rail stall last November, when inadequate communications caused stranded football fans to walk along the underground tracks.
Rachel Smith, a former Sound Transit staffer and current CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said it’s possible a great leader without a transit background can succeed: “Sound Transit, King County Metro, Community Transit, Pierce Transit, all have a ton of transit experts who work there. It is possible to find someone who is a leader who doesn’t have transit experience, who is excellent with capital delivery, finance and crisis management.”
Rogoff lost favor last year when some board members, notably then-Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, complained the agency was slow to reveal a $6.5 billion shortfall. A review by outside experts found a reluctance by staff to daylight bad news.
“That will be a topic some board members want to raise. I think that problem is throughout the organization, not just the CEO,” Keel said Friday.
Longtime board member Claudia Balducci of Bellevue says Rogoff did what was needed in the late 2010s, to nurture federal relationships, organize a huge ST3 plan before the 2016 elections, and set long-term goals.
But now, she hopes for a leader who can keep 18 board members from three counties focused on the regional “spine” between Everett, Seattle and Tacoma, while accelerating bus and rail projects, some of which are delayed until the 2040s. Among other changes, that could mean greater flexibility in construction contracts to work faster.
“I’d love for the new CEO to take on as an early challenge ways to deliver the spine sooner,” she said.
Rogoff’s current salary is $392,892, not counting other benefits and one year’s negotiated severance pay. The job provides 12% per year in retirement contributions, 30 days annual personal time, and a free ORCA fare card.
A nine-page recruiting brochure proclaimed there is “no state income tax in Washington.” That pitch, which irked progressives on social media, was later scrubbed. CPS-HR recruiter Joanne Peterson referred questions to Sound Transit public relations.
Selection committee members are Keel, Constantine, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin, Seattle City Council President Debora Juarez, and Renton Councilmember Ed Prince.