VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan’s recent cabinet shuffle has split the multi-billion-dollar Metro Vancouver transit file amongst three provincial ministers, and it is not clear who is responsible for what.
Last week, Horgan named Rob Fleming as the new Minister of Transportation, giving him responsibility for provincial transit funding, federal agreements, and “infrastructure grants for B.C. Transit, TransLink and highways.”
But he also named Environment Minister George Heyman as the minister responsible for TransLink, charging him in a mandate letter with “TransLink planning, policy and legislation” as well as the Mayors’ Council 10-year transit plan, the eventual Broadway subway line extension to the University of B.C., and future construction of a Surrey to Langley SkyTrain line.
In addition, he named Bowinn Ma as the Minister of State for Infrastructure, asking her to “move ahead with a replacement for the Massey crossing,” ensure the successful completion of the Pattullo Bridge Replacement Project, widen Highway 1 through the Fraser Valley, and coordinate on the Mayors’ Council 10-year plan.
The premier’s decision to divide Lower Mainland transit funding, policy and specific projects amongst three different people has, initially at least, caused confusion.
“It has definitely been noticed, and there does appear to be a realignment not only in ministers but also some of the responsibility between the ministers,” said New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté, who chairs the TransLink Mayors’ Council.
“We’re still trying to get a handle and figure out where TransLink and the Mayors’ Council portfolio falls in under several different ministries there. We’re looking forward to engaging with the new minsters and gain greater clarity on that.”
Coté added he is nonetheless optimistic because the ministerial mandate letters are so detailed and involve so many specific elements planned by the mayors.
“We are pleased to see the bulk of that work does appear to be in there, but now we’re trying to figure out the different relationship between the ministries,” he said.
Horgan defended his alignment on Wednesday, saying it plays on the strengths of the three ministers and continues a separate emphasis on TransLink he started in his last cabinet when he paired it with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.
Moving TransLink to Heyman merges the climate change file with transit building “as we look to ways to get people out of their vehicles, to reduce their emission profile,” said Horgan. “All of those can be best managed by the minister responsible for climate strategies.”
Still, the division of responsibility between the three ministers on Metro Vancouver transit remains unclear.
For example, who has the lead on the $5-billion Massey replacement project, one of the most contentious and politically charged in the province: The Minister of State who has it cited in her mandate letter, the Minister of Environment who handles the TransLink planning it will fall under, or the Minister of Transportation who will have to provide funding approval?
“We’re talking to each other about how best to work with each other,” said Ma. “But suffice to say, our government approaches everything as a team, at the end of the day. And while there may be some mandate items that are included across multiple portfolios, I think that only speaks to how important they are to us.”
The Massey project remains in a business case planning stage, and it is unclear if the province will choose a new bridge or submerged tunnels as a solution to what is the worst traffic bottleneck in the province.
Ma’s mandate letter also called on her to “support the planning and development of key transit projects, like high-speed transit links for the North Shore and expansion of rail up the Fraser Valley.”
A study in September proposed a new bridge or tunnel crossing for rapid transit to North Vancouver, but plans have not been budgeted for or approved by the Mayors’ Council. The premier specifically citing additional effort on the file means it now can be taken more seriously, said Ma.
“What this mandate letter item says to me is the province doesn’t intend for that to simply be a one-hit-wonder study, to act as a showpiece,” said Ma. “We’re really serious about this.”
Fleming, a Victoria-area MLA, said he will draw on Heyman and Ma’s expertise with Lower Mainland politics to guide his decision-making in transportation.
“I think we’ve made some really good progress, working collaboratively with the Mayors’ Council in their priorities, relative to the last government,” said Fleming.
Ma, the MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale, is a former engineer and project manager at Vancouver International Airport. Horgan said shecan offer technical advice to Fleming and Heyman on major projects such as the Massey and Pattullo crossings.
“To have Bowinn’s expertise, it seemed to me appropriate that we would take that expertise and put it to good use and good work to reduce our footprint, to assist our climate goals, and also to make sure we’re getting cost-effective output from our major capital projects,” said Horgan.
Ma’s skill set and social media profile have made her a rising star in the NDP, and some wondered why Horgan did not choose her for a full cabinet position. Ministers of state, while eligible to sit in cabinet meetings, are considered junior members because they generally have almost no staff, budget or decision-making authority.
“I am fortunate enough to have passionate supporters who cheer for me from all corners of the province, and I know that some of them may have different ideas of what roles that I should be filling, but I am very excited about these items that I’ve received,” Ma said Wednesday.