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Overbudget and Overdue, Compass Card Contractor Hires Lobbyist

Lecia Stewart tasked to 'improve public perception' of project as transit plebiscite looms.

By Bob Mackin 20 Feb 2015 | TheTyee.ca

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

With TransLink's smart cards and faregates over budget and overdue, and a plebiscite on transit expansion on the horizon, the contractor responsible for the projects has hired a former SkyTrain executive to deal with provincial officials feeling public pressure.

Lecia Stewart registered to lobby on behalf of Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. on Nov. 17. According to her entry on the Registrar of Lobbyists's website, she is aiming to provide an update to officials "regarding the Compass Card fare payment program being implemented for Metro Vancouver's public transit system" and to "improve public perception of Cubic."

Her undertaking is scheduled to last until May 31, two days after the end of Metro Vancouver's non-binding, mail-in vote on a proposed 0.5 per cent sales tax increase to expand regional transit.

Stewart was appointed by the NDP in 1997 to run the Millennium Line project until the BC Liberals won the 2001 election. She then received a $400,000 golden parachute.

San Diego-based Cubic was awarded the Compass project contract in late 2010, more than a year after it was announced jointly by the federal and B.C. governments as a $100-million project to stop fare evasion and enhance service planning. Ken Dobell, who helped launch TransLink in 1999 and was Gordon Campbell's right-hand man in the Vancouver mayor's office and later in the Office of the Premier, was Cubic's lobbyist from 2007 to 2009.

The system was planned for spring 2013 operations, but the project has been delayed several times for technical reasons that have not been fully explained, but include the tap-on/tap-off function on buses.

TransLink released censored agendas for executive steering committee meetings held in Oct. 24, Nov. 12 and Dec. 4 to The Tyee, but chief financial officer Cathy McLay said no minutes were kept. A management steering committee did keep minutes, but the released versions were heavily censored and reveal no hints about system problems or recent testing at Cubic's San Diego headquarters.

TransLink has issued 85,000 Compass cards during its test phase and the wider rollout has been delayed until at least summer 2015. The price tag is now pegged at $194 million, of which $40 million is from the provincial government.

Chicago Transit Authority experienced a bumpy launch for its Cubic-supplied Ventra fare payment system. In late 2013, it wanted a $1.2-million refund because of malfunctioning equipment, according to the Chicago Business Journal. Three transit users in Chicago also sued, claiming they were triple and quadruple charged for fares by the system.

Lobbyist yet to meet minister

Stewart's registration lists target contacts (the individuals and agencies a lobbyist may seek to communicate with on behalf of a client) as Transport Minister Todd Stone and his Parliamentary secretary Jordan Sturdy, the Office of the Premier, NDP critics George Heyman and Clare Trevena, PartnershipsBC, BC Transit and the B.C. Transportation Financing Authority.

Under B.C. law, lobbyists need not report whether meetings or communication actually took place.

Stewart's registration lists Dave Blue, Cubic's vice-president of sales and account management, as her client contact. Neither Blue nor Stewart responded to a request for comment.

Transport Ministry communications director Kate Trotter said last month that Stone had not met with Stewart or Cubic executives yet.

"Any cost overruns are TransLink's responsibility to cover. TransLink is responsible for implementation of Compass Cards, and is accountable to taxpayers and transit users," Trotter said by email.

"We expect TransLink to ensure this system will be up and running as soon as possible."

The website for Stewart's consultancy, The Stewart Group, says it offers bid and pursuit strategies, growth and entry strategy, procurement support and advocacy development services. Stewart was chief strategist and spokesperson for the successful SNC-Lavalin-involved bid to build the $2.1-billion Confederation Line rapid transit system in Ottawa. In 2013, TransLink gave The Stewart Group a no-bid contract worth nearly $80,000 to help develop the regional transportation strategy and long-term funding plan.  [Tyee]

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