Not long after TransLink was created, I filed a freedom-of-information request to find out how much the transportation authority was paying on company cars for its executives.
It turned out that TransLink spent $741 per month to lease a Chrysler Intrepid for the CEO at the time, Ken Dobell.
Ian Jarvis, then TransLink's vice president of finance, drove a more modest Honda Accord at $460.95 per month. His free car came courtesy of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, which was Jarvis's previous employer.
Around the same time, the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, took away free cars for executives of Transport for London. Livingstone did this because he wanted the managers to have more empathy for transit riders.
It was typical of TransLink in those days not to follow suit.
Dobell went on to become deputy minister to former premier Gordon Campbell and later became the lobbyist for Cubic Transportation Systems. Cubic sold the Compass-card system to TransLink.
That's turned out to be a fiasco. Introduction of the Compass card has been repeatedly delayed.
My favourite TransLink quote on Compass cards came from spokesperson Jiana Ling in early September 2013: "We've always said implementation will begin in 2013 and that a full launch will happen closer to 2014."
Today if you go to the FAQs about Compass on the TransLink website, it states: "Excitement is building for the launch of Compass! Please visit our timelines page for the most up-to-date information on the transition plans."
On the timelines page, it says U-Pass BC users "will be transitioned to Compass in waves from January to July, 2015".
"The fare gates will remain open until the Compass system is in full swing. We'll give you plenty of notice before the gates close, so that you know when, where and how to get your Compass Card."
The Compass system was created to replace the purchase of FareSavers booklets by allowing transit passengers to place a card against a card reader. The system would reserve a three-zone fare, but users would reduce that by "tapping out" when they left the transit vehicle.
The Vancouver Sun reported in October that problems with this tapping-out function are a major reason why the $194-million Compass program has endured such lengthy delays.
This is costing massive sums because TransLink must continue operating its existing systems for a much longer period than anticipated. This is negating savings that would have been accrued by launching the new program.
Why didn't TransLink choose another system?
TransLink could have undoubtedly bought a system that works. One that would be up and running today could have been purchased from the Paris-based Thales Group, which is Cubic's chief rival in this area.
TransLink has demonstrated confidence in the Thales Group in the past. Two years ago, the corporation was chosen to provide signalling services on the Evergreen Line and it already provides the same service on the Canada, Millennium, and Expo lines.
Effective signalling is essential to ensure that trains don't collide into one another—and we haven't seen that occur once in all the years that SkyTrain has been operating in the Lower Mainland.
The Thales Group has also sold fare-gate systems around the world. This includes cities with far more serious security problems and worse soccer hooliganism than exist in Vancouver.
But hey, the Thales Group never hired a lobbyist who was a former CEO and the former boss of Jarvis, let alone the former deputy minister to a B.C. Liberal premier.
TransLink looks for a new CEO
Today, TransLink's unelected chair, Marcella Szel, announced that Jarvis has "stepped aside" as CEO to become an adviser to the board of directors until his contract expires in June 2016. Doug Allen, former CEO of the company that operates the Canada Line, will become the interim CEO.
Jarvis, a somewhat low-key accountant and former senior bureaucrat at the Greater Vancouver Regional District, was shuffled over to become TransLink's chief bean counter when the regional transportation authority was created in the late 1990s.
In the early days of TransLink, I used to feel sorry for Jarvis because I knew that politicians then on the board were burdening the transportation authority with massive debts through some questionable capital investments.
Among them was the tolled Golden Ears Bridge, a public-private partnership. It requires TransLink subsidies of up to $45 million per year because vehicle counts never came close to meeting early forecasts.
TransLink also gave SFU students the U-Pass program (and later extended it to other campuses) primarily because ridership on the Millennium Line was so low that something had to be done to fix this problem. U-Pass, which offers deep discounts to students, has cost TransLink a considerable amount of money over the years. That's because higher ridership resulting from the student transit pass increased operating costs.
Of course, had the NDP government built the Millennium Line where there was passenger demand—rather than where few people lived—ridership wouldn't have been such a problem. And the discounts could have then been made smaller for the postsecondary students.
I can imagine the thoughts going through Jarvis's mind as the vice president of finance when he realized that his superiors planned to extend the U-Pass program to an increasing number of postsecondary institutions.
Jarvis remained in his post as TransLink's head of finance when Tom Prendergast was brought in from New York City at $300,000 per year to solve TransLink's woes in July 2008.
Prendergast arrived as CEO just as oil prices were peaking at $147 per barrel. He left 15 months later as the world economy was only beginning to climb out of a near-global meltdown and HandyDart drivers were on strike.
Jarvis was tapped as his replacement, even though he never had a liking for the spotlight. Usually when Jarvis made the news, it was because the board of directors had jacked up his salary or because the SkyTrain system had failed the public.
TransLink lets itself be defined by Jordan Bateman
In 2013, Jarvis was paid $468,015, including $83,700 in bonuses. It made him a big fat target for Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
In recent years, it's been appalling to see the rising cost of the Transit Police. The force was created and given weapons, in part, to ward off terrorist threats in the lead-up to the Olympics. But once in place, there weren't going to be any serious rollbacks.
Once again, Bateman has had a jolly time pointing out how many of the Transit Police constables are paid more than $100,000 per year. He likes calling them glorified fare checkers, invariably leading to a heated response from whoever is acting as the force's media spokesperson.
Jarvis bears some responsibility for these public-relations problems, but ultimately, the real fault lies with TransLink's board of directors.
There have been successes during Jarvis's tenure, which might come as a shock to some. Ridership increased sharply after the Olympics, helped along, of course, by the creation of the Canada Line. Labour relations seem to have improved markedly since the dreadful bus drivers' strike of 2001.
In addition, the TransLink Mayors' Council did a remarkable job in arriving at a consensus regarding the upcoming plebiscite question. This came after the municipal politicians were dealt a joker by Premier Christy Clark in the form of her campaign promise to hold a vote.
But TransLink has never effectively fought back against its critics, notably Bateman, who's serving the interest of car dealers by constantly trashing the regional transportation authority.
By turning TransLink into an object of public ridicule, Bateman is making it hard for TransLink and its allies to generate sufficient goodwill to win public support for major capital expenditures on transit infrastructure.
Jarvis rarely spoke to reporters
Jarvis may be good at arithmetic, but he was pretty bad at managing public perceptions. And TransLink has a history of making enemies out of potential allies over the years.
Witness its decision to go to the Supreme Court of Canada in a silly and unsuccessful attempt to stop the B.C. Teachers' Federation and Canadian Federation of Students from placing advertisements on the transit system.
The case was launched before Jarvis became CEO, but it reflected upper management's obstinacy in that era. TransLink also threw up obstacles to newspaper publishers hoping to distribute papers on its property. And Transit Police angered people who support immigrants' rights by reporting undocumented migrants caught in fare checks to the Canadian Border Services Agency, facilitating their deportation.
Transit Police even took exception to a Straight staffer tweeting about fare checks on a bus travelling west on Broadway. The ensuing story elicited many critical comments about the cops' heavy-handed approach and TransLink's desire to generate revenue.
On the upside, TransLink has effectively marshalled SFU staff in recent years to present the case for mobility pricing and greater investments in transit infrastructure. The head of SFU's city program, Gordon Price, is one of the best friends TransLink has ever had.
But in the end, Jarvis never thought media relations were his job, so he rarely spoke to reporters. That's unheard-of for most CEOs in the 21st century. And he paid a big price, particularly in the pages of the Vancouver Province newspaper.
He finally made himself available to the media in a more substantial way after the damage had been done by his critics. He was recently interviewed by Rod Mickleburgh for an upcoming BCBusiness article, which was posted on the magazine's website today. Too little, too late.
Fuel taxes are the elephant in the room
One of the key issues vexing TransLink is its heavy reliance on fuel taxes. That's a problem when oil prices yo-yo up and down and drivers are buying more fuel-efficient cars, including electric and hybrid vehicles.
TransLink currently collects 17 cents per litre. In 2013, I wrote an article pointing out that this revenue covered 23 percent of TransLink's expenses.
Here's the conundrum that faced Jarvis. If he succeeded in getting more people out of their cars and onto the transit system, fuel-tax revenues would fall and TransLink could face an operating deficit.
Because the fuel tax is based on consumption, the amount generated varies with the price of gas, which is a highly elastic product. Therefore, it's hard to predict how much money will come in.
TransLink fuel-tax revenues have been affected in recent years as consumption fell from more than 2.2 billion litres in 2007 to just 2 billion litres by 2013.
The transportation's 2014 base plan and outlook forecast that fuel consumption would fall by just 100 million litres from the current level by 2023. But who knows how realistic that is, given the surge in electric vehicles coming onto the market?
As the Straight's automotive columnist Ted Laturnus recently reported, there are a half-dozen fully electric vehicle models already on the roads.
So what's needed in the next CEO of TransLink?
It would help if the new boss of TransLink would be a strong advocate for transit riders and talked about climate change.
This would win him or her friends in the environmental community, which is growing stronger as realization sets in that we're in for serious trouble.
A more vocal CEO would also inspire TransLink staff to realize that they have an important mission: to help this region bridge the transition to a very uncertain future.
The next CEO of TransLink will have to be adept at working with senior levels of government because that's where the bulk of the money will come from to pay for new rapid-transit projects in Surrey and Vancouver.
The next CEO will also have to persuade Premier Christy Clark that it's a colossal waste of money to spend precious transportation funds on another bridge across the Fraser River that will promote more sprawl and more automobile use.
This new chief executive will have to recognize who the premier listens to in the private sector—and convince these people that it's not in their interest to encourage her to build this bridge.
Most importantly, the next CEO should try to figure out how the organization can wean itself off fuel-tax revenues because this funding source may not be so reliable in the future. In addition, relying on the gas tax undermines a core mission of TransLink because if it successfully gets people out of their cars, it hurts the organization's bottom line.
And for the sake of perception, this new CEO should be photographed on a regular basis riding the transit system. He or she should also order other senior staff to ride the transit system and tweet from the transit system so the public and TransLink staff get the impression that the managers are sharing their experiences.
A good start for the next CEO would be to copy Ken Livingstone's strategy of dumping car allowances for senior executives.
Another way to elicit goodwill would be to ensure that nobody at TransLink makes $300,000 or more a year. Anything above that is plainly obscene to most Lower Mainland residents. And for goodness sakes, figure out a way to cut spending on Transit Police.
Ian Jarvis wasn't prepared to do these things, so he's gone. Let's hope his successor doesn't make the same mistakes.