Transit observers in Seattle have high praise for TransLink’s new CEO

WATCH: New TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond knows there are challenges ahead.

Kevin Desmond knows that one of his biggest challenges as the new CEO of TransLink is simply restoring its public image.

“Restoring public trust and confidence in the transit system, I understand that to be job Number 1,” said Kevin Desmond in a press conference announcing his hiring today.

Desmond led the Seattle-based King County Department of Transportation Metro Transit Division for over 11 years, and transit advocates in Washington state gave him positive reviews today.

“Canada’s very lucky to have Kevin Desmond. I’ve worked with him a long time..he’s the right man for the job,” said Shefali Ranganathan, Executive Director of Transportation Choices, an advocacy group in the state.

Here are five things to know about Desmond’s time in Washington state.

1. He won multiple transit plebiscites

While TransLink hasn’t yet raised the idea of holding another public vote for additional funding, it’s something Desmond has plenty of experience with.

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“We won three plebiscites, lost one. It’s tough to lose, it feels a lot better to win,” Desmond said.

His biggest victory came in 2014 when Seattle voters passed Proposition 1, which exchanged a 0.1 per cent tax increase and $60 annual vehicle levy for more buses on the road.

“Metro very much had this reputation of being inefficient and not being a good steward of taxpayer dollars,” said Ranganathan.

“He put through many cost-saving measures and tightened the agency’s belt before going to voters. When we were able to tell this story, that the transit system is relevant and has value to you, they’re more likely to say yes.”

2. His main focus is ridership

While TransLink is in charge of both its mass transit fleet, and maintaining roads and bridges, Desmond has a history of focusing on ridership.

“He was always focused on maximizing the capacity of the network, and to him it meant transit,” said Seattle Transit Blog staff writer Zach Shaner.

“It’s borne out by the performance data. Ridership went up 44 per cent in his tenure.”

In his first comments at today’s press conference, Desmond made much the same point.

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“Ridership is a big deal to me..If we’re focused on ridership, that means we’re focused on the customer, if we’re focused on the customers as an organization, we’re probably always focused on the right thing.”

3. He can implement new initiatives

Under Desmond, King County created the largest fare reduction program for low-income transit users in the United States. King County residents who live in households at or below 200 per cent of the federal poverty level are now eligible for discounts over 50 per cent for their transit fares.

“The fare is pretty nationally unprecedented,” said Shaner.

In addition, Desmond oversaw the implementation of RapidRide, a series of six rapid transit lines through the city, and launched light rail and streetcar service.

3. He’s a “wonk in a politician’s job”

That’s what Shaner wrote in a post about Desmond’s departure from King County, and what he believes will serve him well in his new position.

“His prior experience was operations manager, both in New York City and Tacoma. In all of my interactions with him, that’s what came through to me. He’s not a bureaucrat or politician first, he really cares about the performance and customer experience, which you don’t often find in politicized environments,” he said.

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It’s an attitude Ranganathan believes will serve Desmond well as TransLink looks to move past a difficult period in its history.

“There was a time with Metro where they had an image problem. Kevin really focused on a very customer-focused image, where it was about customer service, customer delivery…he really fostered a culture of transparency at the agency. I think those efforts and skill-set will serve him well.”

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