Fresh Eyes On TransLink and Regional Transportation – By Ray Hudson

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: Kevin Desmond appointed Translink CEO March 2016 speaks with Greg Thomas of the Surrey Board of Trade.

– New CEO Kevin Desmond at the Surrey Board of Trade

: Kevin Desmond appointed Translink CEO March 2016 speaks with Greg Thomas of the Surrey Board of Trade.
Kevin Desmond appointed Translink CEO March 2016 speaks with Greg Thomas of the Surrey Board of Trade.

Two months into the job, Kevin Desmond, the CEO of Translink is on the move.  One of his key priorities in running TransLink effectively is to get out of the office and communicate with the customers, tell them what’s going on, and that’s what he was doing at a meeting with members of the Surrey Board of Trade (SBOT) this past week.

The conversation he had with Greg Thomas, the SBOT in-coming Chair, achieved much in understanding who Kevin Desmond is, what his impressions of the Lower Mainland are, what he wants to accomplish and how he wants to do it.  We will explore this conversation over the next two editions.

Acquiring a Masters Degree in Public Administration from New York University he served as Deputy Director in New York City Mayor, Ed Koch’s, Transportation Office and later as Assistant Commissioner for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, then as Chief of Operations Planning for New York City Transit, which included bus and subway operations.

In 1996 he became the Vice-President of Operations and Development for Pierce Transit in Tacoma, Washington. In 2004, Desmond became the General Manager of King County Metro Transit in Seattle, where he grew that system, increasing its ridership by 44 percent. He was part of three successful votes for transit funding, and part of the successful implementation of the Orca Card, Seattle’s equivalent to the Compass Card.

“I started about the same time that Sound Transit, the commuter train service for Central Puget Sound, was created. I started coming up here (Vancouver) on periodic visits to study all the good things that were going on in Transit and land use developments in this region. We really looked at this region as a model.”

Asked what he saw for transit in Surrey the South Fraser, he responded that his advantage at the outset was that Greater Seattle and the Lower Mainland are quite similar.

“Seattle has a very heavily used transit system, but the dynamic outside of Seattle is, when do we get ours?” He describes the region as growing fast with lots of transportation and land-use issues. “Similarly you have an abundance of transit in Vancouver, with rapid development outside the suburban areas.”

“Surrey needs more transit, better bus service. You’ve got plans for rail service. Hopefully we can get that done with the politics and funding moving forward, and get on with the designing and building of the rail network after. I’ll do my best as the head of TransLink to make sure that it happens.”

Desmond said he’d been out to meet Mayor Hepner and had toured both the L-Line alignment as well as that along the Fraser Highway to Langley

“My point of view, running a transit agency, is that our vision needs to coincide with the municipalities because it’s the municipalities that we serve, they have a better sense of the vision and direction they want to take. We need to be very responsive to that.”

“I think the city has a great vision for making a place for all of these corridors and that light rail is suitable technology for land use development, the place-making and for people to get around. If light rail is what the city of surrey feels is suited to it, then that’s meaningful, very meaningful.  I think there is a debate about the technology for the Fraser Highway all the way down to Langley, and I think there are differences of opinion between the city’s interests, the province’s and Langley’s point of view. We’re going to have to sort that out in the months ahead so we can build the rail system over the coming years.”

Funding for transit operations and development, particularly the topic of road pricing, has been a thorny issue in the Lower Mainland and Desmond was asked for his perspective on it.

“I grew up wanting to be the one in the back seat of the car who got to throw the quarter into the basket of the toll booth on the New England Throughway. I thought tolls were just a way of life. The issue of tolling, or mobility pricing, is one of the financing mechanisms the mayors proposed to the province, to help fund the mayors’ ten year vision. It’s a topic we have to confront.”

Desmond cited the challenges ahead. The Port Mann and Golden Ears Bridges are both tolled. He said their plan is to replace the Pattullo Bridge by 2023, adding that will have to be tolled as will the Massey Crossing. He said this will require a region-wide discussion amongst stakeholders about what road pricing is.

“You can use tolling simply to raise money, to manage road capacity, congestion or mobility pricing,” said Desmond. ‘There are examples of that all over the world. The technology exists to do that so it’s not a technology issue. It’s a public policy discussion. And that discussion has to happen and I think there’s a lot of public interest in that.”

Desmond was asked, based on his experience in Washington State, what he saw working here.

“I don’t have any kind of preconceived positions. What we have in Washington State right now is not mobility pricing, it’s different tolls.  The 520 Floating Bridge connects Redmond to Seattle.  In order to pay for the replacement bridge, which opened just after I got there, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT pronounced Wash-dot) put in a dynamic tolling system so during off-peak periods you pay a lower fee than during the peak period. King County Metro Transit, WSDOT, and the Puget Sound Regional Council, not unlike Metro Vancouver, applied for a federal grant, which we won. That enabled us to buy a whole bunch of buses, and put more of them into service on the bridge at the same time that the tolls were put in place. Ridership on the buses increased 25% within a year, traffic improved on the bridge and WSDOT was making all of its revenue targets from the tolls.  It was a win-win-win for the public sector. For the folks who didn’t want to pay the toll, or couldn’t afford to, we put better transit service on the bridge.  It’s a really good approach in how to manage both the infrastructure cost, and traffic management itself on the bridge.”

He then described how, on a segment of the I-405, between Lynnwood and Bellevue. they put two HOV or HOT lanes each way (Express Toll Lanes) which drivers can pay to use.

“The point is”, said Desmond, “ that WSDOT operated two different systems.  One is just plain old dynamic tolling on an otherwise free-flow bridge, and the other, HOT lane tolling using dynamic pricing.”

Desmond said if mobility pricing is going to be one of the funding solutions, it will require a lot of discussion.

“What will be the forum and who will be the leader at the discussions? No doubt TransLink will be at the table. You talked about mobility pricing that even goes beyond just the crossings. If you start talking about tolling the entire trip on major highways, as a way of perhaps moving away from fuel taxes, that’s even a broader discussion. In the US, cars are becoming more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles are becoming more prevalent. Gas tax revenue is going down in real terms.  So in the US they’re talking now about vehicle-miles-travelled fees.  This requires huge amounts of public input to make it happen.”

Next week, Kevin Desmond talks about system trust issues, fare gates and the Compass Card.