Q&A with Jane Bird on partnership, governance and the private sector

Jane Bird delivered the afternoon keynote at the Toronto Region Board of Trade's 5th Annual Transportation Summit. She spoke about the characteristics of a successful major infrastructure project and included her experiences as former CEO of the Canada Line Inc. The $2-billion Canada Line in Vancouver was the first significant public/private transit partnership in North America.

Q: What are the top the characteristics of a successful major infrastructure project?

Jane Bird (JB): There are three—partnership, governance, and an appropriate role for the private sector. These characteristics need to exist in an overarching theme of trust. Successful projects need to align the goals of a project’s partners. Those executing need to be very clear on what each of the partners (public and private) see as success for them. From there, principles and performance outcomes can be developed as the basis to move forward.

Q: What makes for good governance on a project?

JB: We spent a lot of time on our governance model on Canada Line and it worked very well. The project partners created our company, Canada Line Inc., to deliver on behalf of all of the five funding partners: four levels of government and the Airport Authority. That sounds easier than it was, but the governance structure they created—a separate company accountable for delivering a specific, agreed mandate which they thought through and defined in advance—was fundamental to our success. It attracted an experienced board and management team who effectively delivered on our mandate.

Q: Why is the private sector model on the Canada Line rapid transit project of particular interest?

JB: Canada Line is a dfbom model—it was the first of its kind in transit in North America. This is a commercial model where the private sector designs, builds, finances, operates and maintains the project for a defined period, called a concession. At the end of the concession, the line reverts back to the public sector. Canada Line Inc. partnered with the successful private sector partner and they designed, constructed, partially financed, and now—with two other private sector partners—operate and maintain the line. Because Canada Line had a clear mandate, an experienced team and an efficient decision-making process, we were able to foster a fair and informed exchange, and to make decisions and come to resolution on issues pretty quickly.

At the end of the project we had no contractor claims. Based on my experience, I followed a similar approach with a couple of large projects that followed. We had the same result of no significant contractor claims. This was in large part due to picking the right partner—but equally because the owners got the governance right in the beginning. This enabled informed, prompt decision making during the delivery.

Q: What role can cities play in major infrastructure projects?

JB: Major projects need a legislative mandate to proceed—it removes uncertainty. That said, cities can add tremendous value and achieve city goals by working with proponents within the mandate. In our case, as with the funding partners, we tried to understand what success looked like for the city—its essential design elements—and then worked out a process to ensure they were built into the design. Also, project partners need to remember that city leaders and staff still have their regular jobs to do. Both sides need to understand each other's time and resource constraints, and then work together with this in mind.

Q: What role can Boards of Trade play in helping major projects succeed?

JB: The voice of Boards of Trade can be a loud one. It can help people focus on what cities and regions need to succeed and prosper. Boards of Trades can give voice to the economic need for infrastructure, they can lead across jurisdictions and span government mandates, and help keep an eye on the long-term value of these investments. The partnership of the broader business community and the public sector is a very powerful one.

Big projects take tremendous collective will. The graveyard of transportation is littered with stalled infrastructure projects. Strong partnerships, thoughtful design in governance and defining a role for the private sector can assist a project team in avoiding that fate.