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TransLink is facing the same challenges of transit systems everywhere – how to get riders back and how to service a region that has seen a wave of people moving out of the centre to the suburbs and beyond.Liang Sen/The Canadian Press

It’s not the easiest time to take over running the Lower Mainland’s octopus-like transit system.

Pre-pandemic, the region’s transit agency, TransLink, basked in the glow of the fastest growing ridership anywhere in the United States and Canada. Now, it is facing the same challenges of transit systems everywhere – how to get riders back and how to service a region that has seen a wave of people moving out of the centre to the suburbs and beyond – along with some additional challenges.

One of them is likely to be how to carve away more road space for buses – an inflammatory issue.

But Kevin Quinn is undaunted.

“I’m very optimistic about the future of ridership,” said Mr. Quinn, the 41-year-old former director of transit for the state of Maryland. He officially started his job as the new TransLink chief executive officer on July 19.

Mr. Quinn sees a region that has the foundation for a rebound to strong transit use and continued expansion. And it’s growing in a way that he finds fascinating: He’s struck by how much new housing there is almost everywhere – unlike in Maryland, where there are only pockets of development here and there.

He sees that a lot of what’s being built in the Lower Mainland is along transit lines, which is the way things should be from the perspective of someone such as himself, who trained as a planner and worked as one briefly in Baltimore before moving into the world of transit.

There will need to be change, though, because the way people use transit is changing.

“The peak periods of community are just not as stark as they were. There are overnight shift workers who need service,” he said.

So the question becomes: “Does the product we have out there make sense?”

Expect Mr. Quinn to be pragmatic about it. He describes himself as a data guy and someone who is “agnostic” about what species of transit gets built. Unlike the previous TransLink CEO, Kevin Desmond, he doesn’t have much faith that ride-share companies such as Uber can be helpful in complementing transit, noting that studies have shown those kinds of services pull riders off systems.

“At the end of the day, if you want to talk about a sustainable region, taking single-trip vehicles around does not get us there.”

But if a gondola delivers the most number of people to a destination, fine. If it doesn’t, what is the mode that does?

That kind of close analysis is going to be key, say local transit experts, because TransLink can’t just coast along with its old plans and goals, despite how successful they have been in the past.

“Yes, we want someone to continue with the good, past directions but also be able to adjust to the post-COVID reality,” said Gordon Price, a former city councillor who monitors transit trends.

That post-COVID-19 reality isn’t just about getting previous riders – whose numbers edged up from last year’s rate of 40 per cent of pre-pandemic totals to 53.6 per cent in the last week of August – back onto existing network of buses, ferries and light rail.

It’s about servicing the region differently.

“People are moving further out. They will need transit that’s connecting over larger distances and at greater speed. That means dedicated bus lanes,” says Werner Antweiler, a University of British Columbia professor.

Another B.C. transit-planning consultant, Eric Doherty, also sees TransLink as being at a critical state over the next five years, because it will have to work at the politically difficult job of reducing road space in order to make transit more efficient and more attractive if it’s going to serve those more far-flung populations.

“I think we’re at another tipping point. There is not enough road space for transit and the existing level of congestion. We need a whole bunch of bus lanes and that means taking away a bunch of parking, taking away travel lanes.”

As well, say the transit observers, Mr. Quinn will have to grapple with the problem that has plagued TransLink from the beginning: a chronic funding shortfall that has existed ever since it was created in 2001 when the politicians of the day backed away from providing one more source of revenue besides fares, property taxes and fuel taxes.

That gap has never been plugged, in spite of efforts over the years to get agreement on a vehicle levy, a carbon tax, a sales tax or a congestion-pricing fee.

While TransLink expansion plans have flourished in the last five years – as a new Liberal government and then an NDP government threw money at capital projects in a way that hadn’t been seen for years – that doesn’t provide money for operations.

The shortfall is becoming more noticeable as TransLink collects less in fuel taxes every year, with more people switching to either fuel-efficient gas-powered cars or electric vehicles.

Some of those trends and concerns will shape the new plan that TransLink is developing for its 2050 goal.

Mr. Quinn’s big focus for the moment is giving people confidence about the safety of riding the system. The next is making sure that the new additions to the line – both the Surrey SkyTrain line and the Vancouver SkyTrain extension on Broadway – are matched with investments in the upkeep of the existing system.

That was his job as the head of the Maryland Transit Administration, where he ran a multimodal system the past four years. His stint entailed salvaging the financing and construction of a light-rail line, redesigning the bus network to improve ridership, and boosting commuter-rail numbers by up to five per cent a year.

He’ll be studying the B.C. system up close and personal, the way he did in Maryland: by riding it regularly. He said he’s planning to buy a home for himself and his family (wife, two children) that is on a transit line, because that’s what he’s used to.

“Then I experience all the things other riders are experiencing. I take notes throughout. Wherever I move to, I will take transit.”

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