Sound Transit Stays on the Right Track

As Sound Transit gets ready to open the $1.9 billion University Link extension to Seattle’s light rail system, Richard Sage, director of construction management, discusses the agency’s keys to success and the tracks its laying for the future (Photo: courtesy of Sound Transit)

(Photo: courtesy of Sound Transit)

Seattle’s mass transit system is growing at a rate of $750 million worth of infrastructure per year, and by 2018, that figure is projected to grow to $1 billion per year.

Overseeing various aspects of that work is Richard Sage, director of construction management for Sound Transit, the Seattle-based organization that plans, builds, and operates express bus, light rail, and commuter train services. Beyond the day-to-day challenges that come with this kind of a job—that is, organizing personnel on several different projects simultaneously, coordinating construction schedules so that new projects don’t interfere with current schedules, and managing multiple contract-delivery methods—there also are extra wrinkles that need to be handled.

For example, during construction of the $1.9 billion University Link extension project that connects University of Washington and Capitol Hill to existing light rail service from downtown Seattle to the airport, Sage says Sound Transit had to mind its science. Light rail construction typically includes earth-moving, electromagnetic elements, and noise, but thanks to the project’s proximity to UW, Sound Transit had to mind vibration- and electromagnetic-sensitive research being done on campus.

“As you probably know, the research being conducted on the UW campus is a billion-dollar-plus endeavor each year and one of the largest revenue bases in the region,” he says.

The University Link extension spans 3.15 miles and connects downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill, and the University of Washington. (Photo: courtesy of Sound Transit)

Not only did Sound Transit manage to avoid disrupting university research, but the University Link project will wrap up under budget and ahead of schedule for its 2016 opening. It’s the culmination of nearly seven years’ worth of work and more than three miles of underground rail lines, underground pedestrian concourses, and new stations. Although some of the projects’ contracts were done under traditional design-bid-build delivery methods, Sound Transit for the first time also incorporated construction manager/general contractor (CM/GC) contracts. Sage admits there was a learning curve in putting two project-delivery methods to work, but he also says the agency plans on using CM/GC contracts on future projects.

Of course, adapting to new ways of doing business and dealing with complex projects, at this point, seems to be ingrained in Sage’s blood. His career spans 48 years and includes stints working on various types of transportation projects—airport runways, highways, subway stations, and tunnels can all be found on his résumé—as well as construction of a hydroelectric plant and engineering roles on sewer and water lines.

Next Stops

Current and upcoming work for Sound Transit Light Rail

  • Northgate Link extension
  • Lynnwood Link extension
  • East Link extension
  • Operations and Maintenance Satellite Facility
  • Federal Way extension
  • Tacoma Link extension

“Working in the private industry has been critical to my success at Sound Transit,” Sage says. “While working for contractors, I gained knowledge on how to estimate, plan and construct facilities, and manage the individuals involved in the construction … I have had the pleasure of working with good comprehensive contract documents and the distasteful task of working with defective contract documents, and have come to easily recognize and appreciate the differences.”

He’s also learned how to recognize and manage strong project teams. Sage says that after he provides his team with a rundown of Sound Transit’s philosophies, policies, and procedures, his team members typically can (and want to) handle any potential issues on their own before the issues become bigger problems. If they do become bigger problems, Sage says he’s there for his team—albeit in more of an assisting role than an authoritative one.

“I don’t focus on who caused the problem, or who comes up with the right answer,” he says. “Those things are immaterial to the solution of the problem. The most important thing is to focus on a solution to the problem, come to a proper conclusion, and implement an effective solution. Note that I didn’t say ‘the’ conclusion or solution, as there may be many ways to skin the cat. The choice of which one to use may be based on the ownership of the solution.”

Tunnel boring machines excavated an average of 50 to 75 feet of tunnel per day on the University Link project. (Photo: courtesy of Sound Transit)

The results of Sage’s leadership seem only to lay smooth tracks for Sound Transit as it moves forward. By finishing University Link under budget and ahead of schedule, he says the project reassures the agency’s funding sources (voters within the three-county region serviced by Sound Transit, as well as the Federal Transit Administration) that their investments are secure. In 2008, at the beginning of the national financial crisis, the agency requested and received from the voters an additional $18 billion in funding, despite having not yet opened the initial portion of the Central Link light rail system. However, at the time of the request, the project was on track to be delivered on-time and under budget, and it was. In 2016, Sage says the agency likely will ask for $15 billion of additional funding from the voters. At press time, he said polling already showed as much as 80 percent support for that request.

In a results-driven environment, Sound Transit just keeps providing them for the three Washington counties it serves. Sage says he relishes the work, and even at age 69, plans to continue working until he’s simply no longer able to do so.

“As I tell everyone, ‘Construction is easy,’” he says. “If you are faced with a technical problem, there is a technical solution. The only time that you have problems is when you add people to the project. Our principle responsibility is to manage the people in order to achieve the proper outcomes on the projects.”

Sage Advice

Richard Sage, director of construction management for Seattle-based Sound Transit, shares some of the advice he tells his construction teams.

  • Don’t be afraid of change—embrace it and figure out how to use it to your benefit
  • Don’t be afraid of challenges—they are the best opportunities to learn and improve yourself
  • If you take on a challenge, work very hard to execute it successfully and don’t quit just because things get difficult
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” but be sure to immediately add, “However, I will find out,” and then follow through
  • Disappointments lead to better opportunities, but you have to figure out what those opportunities are and go after them
  • Be fair and equitable in all of your dealings, whether in the work environment, your personal life, or your social life
  • Don’t expect advancement, a promotion, or raise—they’re not entitlements. If you work hard, if you’re productive, if you continue to learn and develop, they will come to you without asking
  • Have fun building the projects, life is too short not to enjoy the journey