Who should head the TTC?

Who should head the TTC?

Just over one month ago, with little fanfare, the Toronto Transit Commission announced that it was launching an international search for a new Chief General Manager. The job posting has now been taken off workopolis.com, which presumably means the applications are now in. It was a good idea to go global: large transit authorities are complex beasts, and there are precious few people around the world who are actually qualified to run the TTC. And some recent developments sure look like attempts to make the job more attractive: dedicating 51% of the capital budget for transit, for example, or removing Howard Moscoe as TTC chair (since the last two Chief GMs resigned over fights with him).

That said, I’m betting that they’ll hire internally and tap current Interim Chief General Manager Gary Webster for the job. If you don’t want to take my word for it, ask David Gunn, one of the most experienced transit executives in the world. Gunn was the TTC’s Chief General Manager from 1995 to 1999. Before that he ran New York City’s transit system and most recently, he was president of Amtrak from 2002 to 2005 until, as he says with pride, “I was fired by the Bush administration.” Given that the TTC is among the largest transit agencies in North America, Gunn figures there are probably no more than a dozen or so people who could do the job, and about 11 of them currently work in the United States. “The transit industry doesn’t have a lot of talented people,” he says. “The TTC’s compensation isn’t that generous, and our income tax system is much more onerous. The job is a tough sell.”

That leaves Webster—whom Dunn believes is the perfect guy for the job anyway. “He was promoted to head of operations while I was there,” says Dunn. “He’s an extremely good fellow. You want an operations person running the TTC. And I sense there’s not a lot of experienced people on the TTC’s board right now, so he would be a good fit.” It’s worth noting that the TTC waited a full nine months after Rick Ducharme’s acrimonious resignation last June before posting the job. TTC chair Adam Giambrone says they waited, in part, because there was no need to rush: “We were getting excellent direction from our Interim Chief General Manager.” Giambrone says expects to have someone in the job by this fall, “perhaps sooner if there’s an internal application.” For the record, Webster has applied.

Gunn also shared his thoughts with me on the circumstances surrounding Ducharme’s resignation — in the process providing some unsolicited advice for both Giambrone and whomever the new CGM turns out to be. To quickly jog your memory: TTC workers took issue with janitors’ night-shift schedules; management stood firm; the workers staged a one-day wildcat strike; Moscoe intervened; employees went back to work; Ducharme resigned in a huff. “Rick was right to pick that fight,” says Dunn. “There was an issue with night shifts, but when you work for a transit agency that’s just life: you have to get up in the morning before all the commuters do, and go to bed later.” And while he speaks fondly of Moscoe, whom he said knew the transit business better than any politician he’d ever worked with, “you shouldn’t undermine management that way, letting the workers believe that if they can’t get what they want from management, they can run to the politicians.”

Gunn went out of his way to express his respect for the TTC’s unionized workers, and said he was glad the TTC did all its maintenance work in-house. (Some would like to see the maintenance work contracted out. Gunn says the union got the work done at a price that would have been competitive with any private-sector offer.) But, he added, “I believe in having very firm work rules. You can argue all you want over salaries and benefits, but the rules are the rules. You must show up for work, and the work has to be done when it’s convenient for commuters, not for employees.”

Gunn says he’s not interested in running the TTC again, so that’s one competitor Webster doesn’t have to worry about. But Gunn, who’s now 70 years old and living on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, adds that “I’d come out of retirement for the right job.” He also says he wants to stay in Canada, and there’s only one job in this country that would suit a man of his experience: the presidency of Via Rail…

Image of David Gunn: Coastalrailnow.org