Transit commissioner rates OC Transpo a ‘seven or eight’
By David Reevely, The Ottawa Citizen December 27, 2011
OTTAWA — OC Transpo rates a “seven or eight” as an organization, says international business consultant and transit commissioner Justin Ferrabee, though it gets a couple of points for its plans and potential.
Ferrabee is a former vice-president of Calian Technologies and now managing partner of Totem Hill, an Ottawa-based consultancy specializing in corporate transformations. He’s worked from London to Singapore, with leviathans like Phillips and Unilever, and even with local councils in Britain, but never so closely on anything transit-related. The former Westboro resident who now lives in West Carleton applied to join the transit commission earlier this year because he’s excited about light rail and how it will change the city.
“The learning curve has been steep,” he says in an interview at an Elgin Street coffee shop (decaf at 11 in the morning, with a bit of sugar). “Probably steeper than I expected. I had to learn about transit, of course, and I had to learn about the city and the commission and the technicalities of that.” He takes the bus three or four times a week, he says, between his own travel and scouting problems or quirks of the system he wants to see for himself.
Like the other three transit commissioners who are not city councillors, Ferrabee was appointed and then thrown right into the controversy over $22-million in service cuts, called “network optimization.” City council had set the amount of the cuts; the transit commission had to agree on how to make them. It was a big test for the commission, since a major reason for creating it and including non-politicians was that a committee of city councillors had a hard time cutting any routes at all, ever.
“That was a very good process, I thought,” Ferrabee said. “There was a lot of consultation, and that resulted in changes to two-thirds of the recommendations.”
It’s a sign that OC Transpo listened, he says, and that’s something that the transit company has to keep doing to build public confidence and also for top managers to rebuild their relationship with transit workers who don’t trust them.
“You need three things. You need leadership, you need engagement — and you have to really listen, or you’re not really engaging — and you need flexibility, so you can adapt to the things people are telling you,” he says.
Riders are right that buses downtown are too crowded, he says, and that some routes were cut back too hard. The plan is to put $5.5 million into solving the worst of the problems, starting in December, but the public needs to be convinced that the company and the commission take the situation seriously.
Ferrabee finds Transpo general manager Alain Mercier and his senior managers “competent” but acknowledges that “people manage up differently than they manage down” and he doesn’t know how Mercier handles his staff.
The transit service has had a rough time lately. The much-publicized confrontation between an OC Transpo driver and an annoying passenger — with the driver’s yelling and swearing caught on a cellphone camera and posted to YouTube — are bad for the public’s view of OC Transpo, and the way management handled it produced an angry response from OC Transpo’s biggest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279. Building confidence and trust, Ferrabee says, is a matter of “little incremental things over time. But it’s fragile. You can lose it very quickly with even small missteps.”
But, he says, he’s worked with organizations big and small, unionized and not, and he’s seen a lot of troubled companies. “One thing I have not seen is any workforce that, at its core, doesn’t want to do a good job.”
Transit commission chair Diane Deans and Mayor Jim Watson have been pointedly doing small things to build a relationship with ATU 279 and its members, Ferrabee says, and that’s at least a start.
Meanwhile, he’s optimistic about improvements that are coming to the transit system. Light rail eventually, but also smart-cards that’ll make payment easier and save OC Transpo money (scheduled to start being sold in the spring) and improved tracking of bus locations for riders (behind schedule but due in the next few months). “These things are going to make a big difference.
He and the other non-politician commissioners have rarely opened their mouths in public meetings since they took office in April, though Ferrabee says he’s been more vocal behind closed doors, where the transit commission talks about the details of union contracts and he feels more at ease applying his skills. “But I’m getting more comfortable and I’m getting more ready to bring things forward.”
For instance, Ferrabee worries that OC Transpo isn’t paying enough attention to new fuel technologies, like natural gas. “It’s not sexy. It’s not sexy at all. But I think it’s important and could be a problem long-term.”
The city looked at non-diesel buses a few years ago but rejected them as too expensive and uncertain, particularly considering the massive expense of switching over its fleet and maintaining two kinds of engine at the same time. But now, says Ferrabee, “Fuel technologies are changing. The economics are changing.” The city locks in fuel contracts to hedge against sudden price spikes but that doesn’t protect it from long, slow, steady rises. When those come along, it’s in a sense money being spent for nothing.
“We can do this network optimization and save a lot of money, and then away it goes again buying fuel,” Ferrabee says. “You don’t get anything more for it.”
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