Tim Louis: Outgoing TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond's shoes will be big ones to fill

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      Recently, TransLink announced the departure of its CEO, Kevin Desmond, as he’s returning to the U.S., where his wife and family live.

      I’ll be very sorry to see him leave. Let me explain why.

      I’ve had interactions with TransLink and its predecessor, the Urban Transit Authority, for more than 40 years.

      Back in the late 1970s, the then-Socred provincial government transferred regional transportation governance from the province to the regions and established the Urban Transit Authority with Vancouver’s then-mayor, Jack Volrich, as chair. This was pre-HandyDART days, when I, along with a number of disability activists, began a multiyear campaign to get the UTA to establish a regionwide custom transit service for people who are unable to use conventional public transit.

      The result of our efforts went on to become HandyDART, one of the most successful custom transit services in North America.

      In my position as a cofounder of the Pacific Transit Cooperative—which was made up exclusively of HandyDART users—in 1981 we were awarded the contract to run Vancouver’s HandyDART.

      This was just the start of my four-decade working relationship with TransLink, and I have no hesitation in saying that Kevin Desmond is the best CEO the agency has ever had.

      Kevin has been with TransLink for almost five years. When I appeared before the TransLink board of directors in the spring of 2016, he was new to the job. But it was immediately apparent that he’d brought with him a fresh approach as well as a wealth of knowledge and experience from his previous positions south of the border: as operations manager for New York City Transit and as a senior executive with two separate transit agencies in Washington state.

      TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond

      Here in Metro Vancouver, he has overseen $9 billion worth of transit improvements, including the double-decker buses, more frequent SeaBuses, and touch-free fare gates.

      But back to that spring day in 2016, when I was speaking to the board in my capacity as cochair of the HandyDART Riders Alliance, an advocacy group intent on ensuring that HandyDART gets the funding and attention it deserves from TransLink. At that time, the demand for HandyDART service was far outstripping supply, resulting in a very high trip turndown rate. HandyDART users were unable to get essential rides.

      I followed up my appearance before the board with a letter to Kevin, expecting only a perfunctory written reply from one of his staff, if I received a reply at all. Just a few days later, my law-office phone rang and my secretary advised me that there was a Kevin Desmond on the line for me! This was the beginning of a very positive and productive relationship.

      Kevin is very accessible. I could call him anytime and he would either take my call or get back to me within hours. He was always very respectful, and receptive to any and all ideas and proposals. It’s my understanding this wasn’t just with me.

      In another instance, people in wheelchairs were having a problem with the turnstiles at SkyTrain stations. Kevin committed a significant amount of money getting TransLink to develop and roll out unique new Compass cards with embedded radio-frequency ID chips that would open the turnstiles for wheelchair users.

      For the press conference announcing this change, I couldn’t believe it! Kevin invited me to join him and we did the presser together. To me, it always felt like we were partners, working to improve transit for people with disabilities.

      Today, the HandyDART trip turndown rate is virtually zero. As a result of the increased funding for which Kevin no doubt led the charge, more buses and more drivers were added, making life so much easier for people like me who depend on HandyDART to get around.

      As the funding was being increased, Kevin also established a task force composed of HandyDART users. It has made numerous recommendations, all of which were accepted by Kevin and TransLink’s board.

      Along the way, Kevin gave me his cellphone number. I was totally surprised at the time, but later I learned that I’m only one of many community activists for whom he wanted to be accessible—something I found remarkable and very unusual for a leader in his position.

      Under his watch, TransLink has become increasingly innovative and creative when it comes to considering all riders’ needs. Recently, TransLink announced that bicycles abandoned in their bike parkades are being donated to local charity Pedal Depot, who will get them into the hands of low-income Metro Vancouver residents.

      And you may have heard that TransLink is the very first transit system on the continent to run a trial installation of pathogen-killing copper on high-touch surfaces, potentially combatting COVID-19 transmission.

      Kevin’s shoes will be big ones to fill. It’s going to be very tough but, hopefully, the TransLink board will succeed in recruiting someone as accessible, positive, and productive as Kevin.

      I wish him the very best.

      Daily atmospheric CO2 (Courtesy of CO2.Earth)

      Latest daily total (November 17, 2020): 412.24 ppm

      One year ago (November 17, 2019): 409.82 ppm

      Tim Louis is a Vancouver lawyer and former city councillor and park commissioner. This article first appeared on his blog, which lists the daily carbon dioxide count in parts per million in the atmosphere at the end of every post. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.