Sound Transit’s board of directors — 17 elected officials from Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, plus the state’s Secretary of Transportation — is expected to vote Thursday on a contract extension for the transportation agency’s chief executive, Peter Rogoff.
Rogoff, who has been with Sound Transit for the past three years, would see an 11 percent salary increase to a base of $365,000, up from his current base pay of $328,545. The three-year contract would automatically be renewed each year for three years, but can be can ended with advance notice by the board or Rogoff.
Pay raises for elected and agency officials are about as popular with the public as tax increases. Witness the grumbling in online comments and letters to the editor regarding a report last month that the state’s citizens salary commission for public officials had voted to increase the pay of state lawmakers, judges, the governor and other state elected officials.
Yet the pay increases, often justified as being comparable to those of other officials doing similar work, tend to get baked into the system and are difficult to discourage, even before a panel of citizens who aren’t beholden to elected officials.
The key, then, becomes ensuring value from the officials getting the boost in pay.
Toward that end, Sound Transit’s board — whose Snohomish County members include Dave Somers, county executive; Dave Earling, mayor of Edmonds; and Paul Roberts, Everett city council member and mayor pro tem — have used both carrot and stick with Rogoff.
Early this year the board, following reports from some Sound Transit employees that Rogoff’s leadership style was “brusque,” “dictatorial” and “unnecessarily confrontational,” withheld a performance bonus and ordered Rogoff to complete training to improve his skills in listening, self-awareness and building relationships. “East Coast confrontation,” meet “Seattle nice.”
At the same time however, board members, especially Snohomish County’s trio, have been clear about what they see as Rogoff’s strengths. Following two decades as a U.S. Senate staffer — including for Sen. Patty Murray — Rogoff served as an undersecretary and transit administrator in the U.S. Department of Transportation for the Obama administration.
Board members have credited that background and Rogoff’s other skills in securing federal grants and other funding for Sound Transit, including this year’s $1.17 billion grant for Sound Transit 2, which will push the Link light rail system north to Lynnwood by mid-2024, funding that had been in doubt because of uncertain support from the Trump administration.
“Although he can be brusque and forceful, he can be effective,” Somers said in March following the board-ordered review of Rogoff’s management style.
It’s his effectiveness and persuasion skills that are now needed in Snohomish County as work continues to extend light rail and bus rapid transit services to Lynnwood and north to Everett for the next six years and beyond.
Somers, Earling and Roberts have long confronted a Seattle-centric emphasis in funding Sound Transit projects. Sound Transit has used a policy called “sub-area equity,” to prioritize light-rail projects based on the tax revenue generated in each of five regions. Snohomish County generates the least amount of tax revenue, but suffers the worst congestion along I-5 and represents the northern reaches of the “spine” that light rail was envisioned to serve. As now planned, Link isn’t expected to begin service in Everett until 2036.
In a guest commentary in The Herald in May, the three county leaders wrote that Sound Transit’s own financial models showed that in the event of an economic downturn or increases in light-rail project costs, the voter-approved funding in Sound Transit 3 that was intended to extend Link to Everett, Tacoma and Issaquah might be exhausted before reaching those cities.
More recently, in an interview with the Seattle Transit Blog, Somers warned of proposals for Ballard and West Seattle for enhancements to their light rail segments for tunnels rather than less-costly elevated lines that could jeopardize funding to extend light rail in Snohomish County.
“Those of us that are out in the distant future for delivery, and at the end of the system, are going to bear all the risk of cost overruns or overspending,” Somers told the transit blog.
Roberts, in a phone interview Monday, said he believes Rogoff is committed to seeing the light rail system built out as intended as soon as possible.
“Not only the mission and focus of getting it to Everett, Issaquah and Tacoma, but in not exhausting the financial capital before funding those other projects,” he said.
Assuming his contract is extended Thursday, Rogoff can earn some good will among Snohomish County taxpayers by using his skills of persuasion with all 18 board members — 10 of whom serve in Seattle, King County and its cities — regarding the need to ensure the entire Sound Transit light rail system is built as promised.