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New TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond, right, leaves a news conference after the announcement of his appointment. He is seen alongside acting CEO Cathy McLay, middle, Surrey mayor Linda Hepner, left, and Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, second from right, at Waterfront Station in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak)
New TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond, right, leaves a news conference after the announcement of his appointment. He is seen alongside acting CEO Cathy McLay, middle, Surrey mayor Linda Hepner, left, and Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, second from right, at Waterfront Station in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak)

Incoming TransLink CEO hired from Seattle excited for ‘new challenge’ Add to ...

TransLink’s new chief executive officer acknowledges he’ll be taking on a bruised brand at the Vancouver area’s embattled transportation agency, which has faced recent criticism amid a failed plebiscite, a smart-card system that has seen repeated delays and discord among the region’s mayors.

But Kevin Desmond, who will start his new job on March 21 after more than a decade running Seattle’s transit system, says he relishes the challenge – though he says he has no specific game plan beyond some basic transit-management principles.

“I like challenges and clearly TransLink presents a new challenge,” Mr. Desmond told a news conference on Wednesday at the downtown Waterfront Station, where SeaBus, SkyTrain, the Canada Line and bus services converge.

Mr. Desmond, who spent 12 years at the Seattle region’s King County Metro Transit and was also once the chief of operations planning for New York City Transit, succeeds former CEO Ian Jarvis, who was fired a year ago as the agency attempted to show it was responsive to customer concerns.

The list of problems hanging over TransLink includes a plebiscite last year that saw voters reject a sales tax to pay for transportation projects. The failed vote capped a campaign that centred largely around complaints about how the agency was run and how much its executives were paid.

The result prompted the region’s mayors to call for more control over TransLink.

As well, TransLink’s rollout of its Compass smart-card system has been beset by delays, and there have been several high-profile service disruptions to its SkyTrain system in the past year and a half.

Mr. Desmond acknowledged the agency has been through some tough times. “I understand that TransLink has suffered a bruise to its brand, and the last couple of years here have been challenging,” he said.

Referring to last year’s plebiscite, he said he has been part of four such votes in Seattle, winning three. “It’s tough to lose,” he said. “It feels a lot better to win.”

Mr. Desmond conceded it would be a mistake to come to his new job with a fixed strategy. Instead, he said he will listen to customers, workers, his board, mayors and the province to decide on directions for TransLink.

“I wouldn’t come into any organization saying, ‘I’ve decided what to do. I already know all the answers,’” he said. “I have a very good sense in my gut of how to manage a place like TransLink.”

He outlined a series of principles, such as the belief that smart-card systems such as TransLink’s troubled Compass card, rolled out over several months, should be launched at once – though he refused to criticize TransLink’s handling of the file. He has worked on two such systems in his career.

Mr. Desmond has been with Seattle’s Metro Transit since 2004, managing a mix that includes buses, trains and para-transit vans. His run included transit expansion and the 2009 launch of the ORCA smart card.

He also said his key metric for measuring the success of transit is ridership, referring to a personal concept called “total transit product” that says the best way to satisfy customers is by making the system more reliable in all interactions from arrival at a stop.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, chair of the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, said Mr. Desmond comes as the region is hoping for federal funding to facilitate such transit expansion as the Broadway subway in Vancouver.

“It’s fantastic to have a new leader, who can bring everything together – the combination of funding and the focus on customer service,” he said.

In Victoria, TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender described Mr. Desmond as “very capable” and said his job will include dealing with TransLink public perception problems.

But the opposition NDP released a statement that said Mr. Desmond will face challenges dealing with the status quo created by the B.C. Liberal government, including the need for a more effective and accountable TransLink.

Jordan Bateman, B.C. director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation who campaigned against the tax hike in the plebiscite, said in a statement that Mr Desmond has his work cut out for him.

“TransLink needs both a new leadership team and a new organizational culture. TransLink needs to be more customer-service focused but also aware of the fact that its shareholders – the taxpayers – are unhappy with the way it’s been run for a long time.”

Mr. Desmond will receive an annual salary of $365,000, which TransLink is describing as the “mid-range” of the compensation plan approved by the mayors’ council. In his first year, he will receive a $1,500 monthly housing allowance.

Since Mr. Jarvis’s departure, TransLink has had two interim CEOs: Doug Allen, a former deputy minister who ran the agency until last August, and vice-president Cathy McLay.

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