New TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond

TransLink turns south to Seattle for new CEO (with video)

Kevin Desmond headed King County transit system, now aims to inspire public confidence in Metro Vancouver transit agency

Kevin Desmond doesn’t yet have a plan to fix TransLink’s battered public image but says he is up for the challenge and will start by carefully listening to staff and passengers.

TransLink’s new CEO from Seattle takes the helm of the embattled transit agency at a time advocates hope will prove a turning point for the better.

“I like to climb mountains,” Desmond said Wednesday when asked why he’d want the job.

The Texas-born and New York-raised general manager of King County’s Metro Transit system is no stranger to the problems and politics here – as well as the strengths.

Desmond said Metro Vancouver’s system has been a leader that he and others in Seattle have looked to with admiration and often tried to emulate.

“A lot works really well at TransLink,” he said, but added it has “suffered a bruise to its brand.”

Desmond vowed to restore public trust and confidence in the system while looking for more ways to make it more effective and efficient.

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He takes over March 21 and will be the fourth CEO to head TransLink in just over a year since former longtime CEO Ian Jarvis was shuffled aside at the outset of last year’s failed transit tax plebiscite, followed by interim CEOs Doug Allen and Cathy McLay, who continues as chief financial officer.

The biggest challenge for Desmond will be convincing the public to support TransLink after the No vote that was widely regarded as a repudiation of the transit agency, rather than a rejection of the mayors’ council plan to expand services across the region.

Inspiring public confidence hasn’t been easy for the parade of previous CEOs, who have each faced withering attacks from TransLink critics.

But Desmond is used to campaigning for public support.

He has fought four previous plebiscites in Washington for transit tax increases – winning three and losing one.

Desmond skirted questions of what new funding source he’d prefer, nor would he directly answer when asked if he expects to fight another referendum here or came on condition there never be another vote on transit funding.

“The region needs to invest in the transit system,” he said. “What the path forward is I don’t know.”

Other significant challenges include completing the troubled Compass card project and fulfilling commitments to upgrade the SkyTrain system to make it more resilient to major shutdowns.

Desmond said Seattle’s Orca fare card was also slow to roll out but his now one of the best parts of the transit system there.

He said he wants to focus on making Compass work rather than criticize how it has been launched to this point. “It is what it is.”

Desmond oversaw King County’s launch of light rail, bus rapid transit lines and street car service, while transit ridership grew 44 per cent.

The new appointment comes after the release last month of an internal report from former CEO Allen strongly criticizing both the province and area mayors for sometimes undermining TransLink, as well as a lack of focus on increasing transit ridership.

The provincial government has so far resisted calls from Metro Vancouver mayors for further major governance changes at TransLink, arguing in part the new CEO will set a new constructive tone and put the organization on the right track.

This isn’t the first time TransLink has turned stateside for a new leader. Jarvis’s predecessor was Tom Prendergast, who returned to New York City after serving from 2008-09, during which time the province rebuffed calls from the mayors to approve new funding sources for system expansion.

Desmond’s salary will be $365,000 a year – less than Jarvis received and in the middle of the new CEO salary range approved by mayors last fall. He will also get a $1,500 per month housing allowance for the first year only.

Minister for TransLink Peter Fassbender said the board has hired “a very capable individual at a salary that is appropriate.”

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