British Columbia

Pandemic threatens positive legacy of TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond

It's rare to have a CEO leave an organization with near unanimous praise and yet its long-term growth prospects very much in question. But that's where TransLink finds itself as it looks to a future without Kevin Desmond. 

After years of success, decreased ridership puts into doubt the long-term trajectory of regional transit

Outgoing TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond in New Westminster, B.C., on Wednesday. He will leave the position Friday after five years overseeing public transport in Metro Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

It's rare to have a CEO leave an organization with near unanimous praise and yet its long-term growth prospects very much in question. 

But that's where TransLink finds itself as it looks to a future without Kevin Desmond. 

"Our finances are in some distress, and we need to figure out how to keep the buses on the road and pay our share of capital," said Desmond in an exit interview with CBC Early Edition host Stephen Quinn, two days before his Feb. 5 departure that was announced last October

The interview took place on an empty double-decker bus. It could be seen a metaphor for both the investments in new infrastructure Desmond pushed for, and how that growth — and the additions made assuming more growth in the future — are threatened due to a pandemic that has cut ridership by 60 per cent. 

"We've lost a lot of ground and it's opened up a pretty big hole," said Desmond.

The $644 million in emergency funding provided by B.C. and Ottawa is allowing TransLink to get through 2021 without major changes to service, but after that? 

"It's all guesswork on how ridership comes back," he said. 

Double-decker buses are one of the many improvements to TransLink's infrastructure under Desmond's watch. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

String of successes

To focus solely on TransLink's uncertain future is to minimize what happened under Desmond's watch in the four years before the pandemic. 

Steadily growing record ridership. Moving forward on stalled projects for rapid transit in Surrey and Vancouver. Relative labour peace, and minimal hours-long technical delays on major parts of the system. 

"If you're focused on the right things — on customer experience, on service reliability — that sets up the environment to grow ridership and market share. And we did that. And it's a virtuous cycle" said Desmond.

One thing Desmond had that previous CEOs didn't was federal, provincial and key municipal governments all on the same political wave length for most of his tenure. 

It meant TransLink could put together a strategic plan that had regional buy-in and get necessary funding from higher levels of government.

And Desmond regularly got praise from Metro Vancouver mayors for being attentive to their issues and getting them on the same page when required. 

"I spent a lot of my five years focusing on that: how do you build consensus for a long-term or medium-term vision and stick to it," he said. 

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond holds a pair of scissors to launch the RapidBus service. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

North Shore and South of the Fraser questions

Regrets, he has a few.

One is the lack of a timeline for further rapid transit in Surrey due to both the pandemic and political change in direction following Doug McCallum's push to move the city from light rail to a SkyTrain extension to Langley . 

"We were ready to go last summer, COVID happened, and once again it gets pushed and put on ice," said Desmond. 

"People in Surrey and Langley south of Fraser [River] deserve more rail, and I wish we were further along in that."

The other regret Desmond cites is the lack of substantial improvements to transit on the North Shore — a new RapidBus barely enters West Vancouver due to local opposition, while traffic continues to be the daily issue in the region. 

"They're still working at it, all three mayors working with the province, with the federal government, it's a challenge," he said. 

"There's no solutions that immediately presents itself, a SkyTrain purely by the numbers would be hard to justify, so how can we envision a solution?"

That's a question for a future CEO.

For now, Desmond is looking forward to heading back home to Washington State, and having a new set of priorities.  

"I've got a to-do list from my wife to take care of … I've been running a transit agency for 16.5 years without a break, and it wires you to be in the moment, 100 things going on at once," he joked. 

"I'm going to take a break, and see what I want to do when I grow up."

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