Top 100 2017: How a Seattle transplant made his mark on TransLink

Kevin Desmond has been quick to bring change as TransLink CEO–and to put himself forward as the voice of the transit agency

Credit: Pooya Nabei

Since Desmond took over as TransLink CEO in early 2016, ridership has climbed 4.5 per cent

Kevin Desmond has been quick to bring change as TransLink CEO–and to put himself forward as the voice of the transit agency

Armed with a pack of M&M’s and a wall-mounted transit map, Kevin Desmond is ready to embark on a virtual tour of the Lower Mainland. As he moves through Richmond, the TransLink CEO sees a Canada Line expansion southward. On the right side of the map, Desmond runs his finger across a Tri-Cities suburb, pausing before he recalls the name of Port Coquitlam. Fifteen months in, the 59-year-old Seattle transplant is new to the job and the region, but he’s learning fast.

Energetic and thin, with a mop of white in his otherwise grey hair, Desmond has spent more than two decades in the Pacific Northwest, but his New York accent still shows through. Born in Waco, Texas, and raised in Westchester County, north of New York City, he moved to Washington State in 1996 after earning his master’s in public administration at NYU. He rose through the ranks as a transit planner, first in Tacoma and then Seattle, before becoming general manager of King County Metro Transit, Greater Seattle’s equivalent of TransLink, in 2004. By the time Desmond left, he had overseen a 44 per cent increase in ridership, his chosen metric for success.

At what is officially known as the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority, he faces a new set of challenges. TransLink, which has 7,000 staff spread across four operating companies, recorded 386 million trips in 2016, up from 364 million the year before. With Metro Vancouver projected to add another 950,000 residents by 2041, demand for the transit authority’s services will only keep growing.

Desmond succeeded Ian Jarvis in February 2016, during a time of upheaval. The referendum of early 2015, which had asked the region’s voters if they approved of a 0.5 per cent sales tax increase to help fund a $7.5-billion transit plan, had delivered a firm no. Besides scuttling plans for necessary upgrades, that plebiscite put what critics regarded as all of TransLink’s negative qualities—from bloated executive pay to system tardiness—under the microscope.

Desmond’s timing proved fortuitous, though. Last July, TransLink finished its long-planned rollout of Compass Card and of fare gates on SkyTrain, which helped boost 2016 revenue by $30 million. In December, the opening of the Evergreen Extension introduced rapid transit to new parts of the Lower Mainland. Later that month, TransLink sold its bus facility near Vancouver’s Oakridge Centre to Intergulf–Modern Green Development Corp. for $440 million. By the end of 2016, systemwide boarding was 4.5 per cent higher than the year before. 

TransLink’s fundamentals were always strong, Desmond contends—even throughout the organizational tumult that saw three CEOs depart in less a year. “We started out as an agency with very good metrics for efficiency and effectiveness that had a reputation problem,” he says. 

As an outsider, Desmond has already made his mark. He’s introduced a new accountability centre that tracks performance indicators as diverse as system cleanliness and fleet availability. He’s also steered phase one of TransLink’s 10-year vision through the planning phase.

Outside those duties, Desmond has become an effective advocate for the transit authority. “I’ve got to be CEO of this very visible, very publicly prominent, always-in-the-media organization—I’m the spokesperson,” he says. “If there’s something challenging, the buck stops here. But I’ll also tell you all the good things that we’ve got going on.” His message: “Positivity, positivity, positivity.”