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Jack Collins urged his successor to keep the public onside by showing progress and said that political leaders have to ‘stick to it and build it.’Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The man tasked with making the Ontario government's massive transit promises a reality is leaving the job, in what is being called a "great loss" for Metrolinx.

As he enters the final stretch of a 41-year career that has taken him around Canada and the United States, Jack Collins urged his successor at the regional transit agency to keep the public onside by showing progress and said that political leaders have to "stick to it and build it."

His stature has grown fast since joining the agency six years ago. In his first role at the organization, his team consisted of him and the partial use of three other employees. He now co-ordinates the efforts of 300 people and, as chief capital officer, oversees a capital budget of $2.5-billion.

"For me, I guess I would say I really don't need another project on my résumé," Mr. Collins said in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday in his office at Toronto's Union Station.

"But the main motivation is, I'm at a point in my life now, 65, when I've got two granddaughters that happened to come along just in the last couple of years. And I'd really like to be a full-time grandpa and be part of their life."

The departure, scheduled for the end of the year, leaves a large hole in the organization. Mr. Collins said that he signalled internally his desire to leave in recent months, though, allowing a quiet search for his successor to begin.

"Whenever you lose someone of Jack's calibre … that's a significant challenge for the organization," Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig said.

"The good news is that Jack and I have been planning for the day that he was going to be returning to his family. He's built the kind of organization that is resilient, that has successors, that is well under way in terms of the machinery to deliver on the program."

The trajectory of Mr. Collins's time at Metrolinx is illustrative of the growing importance of transit under the current provincial government. Premier Kathleen Wynne is a former minister of transportation and has continued to champion infrastructure investment since leading the Liberals to a majority government last year.

The centrepiece of the Grits' transportation plan is the electrification of GO rail corridors, adding faster and more frequent service. This is also key to Toronto Mayor John Tory's transit plan, which entails a more local variant on GO service, with trains making additional stops and some form of connection to the airport area.

Ramping up GO into what the province calls a Regional Express Rail service will take years, making Metrolinx officials keenly aware of the need to keep showing that other projects are moving ahead. Among the most visible is the Eglinton Crosstown light-rail line, for which a $9.1-billion contract for the remainder of its construction and a generation of maintenance was recently announced.

But Mr. Collins pointed also to a much smaller project for dedicated bus lanes in York Region as evidence against the regular local criticism that the transit file is all talk and no progress. And he predicted that transit-building will gain a self-sustaining momentum as people see projects come online and realize the benefits they can bring.

Mr. Collins began his career at Environment Canada, assessing marine projects, but soon made the switch to transit. He spent time in Hamilton, Vancouver and Detroit before starting a 10-year stretch of work on U.S. light-rail projects. That was followed by 11 years with a transportation authority in San Jose, Calif. He joined Metrolinx late last decade and took on a series of senior roles. He had an unusually public profile for a senior bureaucrat, his affability leading Metrolinx to feature him in ads extolling the benefits of their plans. And local railfans who turned out to watch the middle-of-the-night lift over the Allen Expressway of two tunnel boring machines might have seen him there as well. He had pitched attendance at the event to his wife, he admitted, as a date night.

"First she said yes to the date," he recalled, "then I told her what the date was."