Jane Bird, CEO of Columbia Power Corp.
There’s little that shapes our environment more than a meaty infrastructure project, and Jane Bird recently finished a monster. As the former CEO of Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc., she was responsible for one of B.C.’s biggest pre-Olympic developments, a controversial public-private partnership that tore up Cambie Street and earned the ire of the neighbourhood’s merchants. But in terms of costs and deadlines, it was a big success. And with that track record, Bird takes on her next assignment, leading a Castlegar-based Crown corporation as it begins construction of a $900-million generating station for the Waneta dam near Trail. It may be turbines instead of trains, the Kootenays instead of Cambie, but the challenges of building big in B.C. remain the same.
When your position with the Canada Line ended, was it hard finding a new project to
Yes and no. The Canada Line project was a wonderful experience, but it was always the intention to wind up and move on. It was a question of identifying the sectors I had an interest in, and I’m enormously interested in energy. So I scanned those opportunities, and I was approached by the Columbia Power board, who were looking for a CEO.
You’re a lawyer by training and used to work in private practice. How did you get involved in these big infrastructure projects?
I was on the planning commission for the City of Vancouver, and in the ’80s the provincial government announced they were going to expand the Millennium Line. I ultimately ended up taking a leave from the law firm to negotiate the city’s position. And then – life has strange turns in it – I was asked to take a look at a connection to Richmond and the airport, and the rest is history.
What attracts you to this kind of work?
It’s so real; you can tangibly see the difference you’re making. Secondly, I have a real interest in the interface between the public and private sector, so the opportunity to do the Canada Line with a private sector investor was very interesting. And finally, I’m really interested in how community interests can be reflected in these projects, so I really like the multi-stakeholder aspects of these projects.
What are you focusing on in your new role?
We need to do a good job on the Waneta project, bringing it in on schedule and on budget. It’s a very big project, and it’s a complicated partnership involving ourselves, the provincial government, our private sector partner Fortis and the Columbia Basin Trust. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much ownership the community takes in the Columbia Power Corporation; it’s their power company. I want to work with that connection to the community to seek new opportunities to develop renewable energy so we can continue to stimulate investment and employment in the region.
The Canada Line was an important example of a public-private partnership in action. What lessons did we learn from it?
The fact that the Canada Line was so successful has helped people understand some of the principles underlying the structure. It helps us realize that it’s not a question of whether government does things or whether the private sector does things, because on these big infrastructure projects there’s almost always a role for both. And the fact that the Canada Line has been successful allows us to say, All right, this is something we can do. Does it have applicability in other situations? It won’t in all situations, but there are aspects of it that will.
One major issue raised during the Canada Line construction was whether businesses should be compensated for the disruption. What is the future of that debate in B.C.?
First of all, it’s gratifying to see how wonderful Cambie Street is now. I think it’s fair to say that the street is more vibrant and beautiful than ever before. But, that said, clearly there were issues during construction; it was difficult. It almost always will be when you’re building big infrastructure. And the question of that impact will continue to face us in so far as we know our infrastructure is dated across the board. It’s dated in terms of water, roads, transit services and, most people would say, electricity. And frankly I think it’s a healthy discussion to have. If you think of the infrastructure that was built in the ’50s and ’60s, those people endured the impact for our benefit, and I think we as a society, in this generation, need to engage in the same discussion.
And yet, even with something as virtuous as renewable power, there always seems to be fierce opposition to any big developments. Do we need to change how we approach these kinds of projects?
Where the conversation gets difficult is when the perception is that the other side isn’t listening. We can take positions on either side that seem so virtuous that we don’t need to see to the other side of the equation. But that’s when the debate becomes unproductive. If there is a genuine willingness to understand concerns on both sides as early as possible and communicate early and often, it doesn’t go all the way to harmony, but I think it will take us some way there. But we’re getting better at it. People are approaching that discussion in a much more sophisticated, thoughtful way than in the past. As a society, we’re thinking all the time about, What are we going to leave as a legacy? What is the long-term future of our province?