Corrigan now driving transit infrastructure improvement bus

Let's not overstate it. He is not the 2018 version of Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World.

There is no doubt, though, that if there is a local person to watch in the first six months of this year, it is bound to be Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan. He holds the key to the most significant infrastructure the region proposes: the multiple, much-delayed, mysteriously budgeted, oft-maligned transit projects.

Corrigan is a connected New Democrat – his spouse was a longtime MLA – but that doesn’t mean that these projects will now find a more sympathetic ear in Victoria.

Rather, he has to be the sympathetic ear. What happens now seemingly has to have his blessing.

In stationing himself before the holidays as the new chair of the mayors’ council for Metro Vancouver, and in bumping from the perch the co-chairing mayors of Vancouver and Surrey, Corrigan is more gatekeeper than advocate. It has not gone unnoticed in the first reviews of his ascension that Corrigan has been incorrigible on many earlier council ideas to get people from here to there. Given Burnaby stands to be more benefactor than beneficiary of the 10-year transit plan, Corrigan has, like many other mayors, questioned whether the biggest ideas for the biggest cities might need modification.

He is not wrong in asserting that the region is about to embark on a journey far more complicated than walking and chewing gum at the same time.

The ambitious scope of the transit overhaul includes – for the time being, at least – a subway extension for Vancouver, a light-rail transit scheme for Surrey and a fixer-upper of the Pattullo Bridge that links New Westminster to Surrey. And buses and buses and buses. And a new tax tied to our mobility to pay for the region’s share.

At once.

Other ambitious questions, though, are how to recruit and retain the talent to manage the projects, and whether there needs to be either a scale-back or a schedule that doesn’t deplete the engineering and construction workforces. It’s not as if we’re not building anything else.

One of the major problems with the transit plan has been its protracted gestation.

And newish TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond isn’t experienced with subways; he’s more of an above-ground transport guy and his team is not versed in mammoth builds.

More problematic might be that both federal Liberal and provincial NDP governments recognize the big-ticket nature of these projects does not help the balance sheet and does not create imminent jobs. They are for later mandates, not this one, and any economic trouble might shove them back in the line for more immediate political payoffs.

At some point as a country, we might find that these are not projects governments wish to lead. But at this point as a country, the private sector isn’t ready to take them on.

The public support for these projects also might be illusory.

No question, we need better transit systems to cope with congestion and population – and more broadly to mitigate the affordability crisis that has dispatched families to communities from which they must commute to work. But it has been years since we have had clearly stated budget estimates for the largest of these public works, and the eventual disclosure is bound to jar our jaws. History has yet to record a transit project whose budget declined as the shovels got ready to pierce the ground, and the deposing of the council co-chairs will provide an opportunity for a rethink.

Which brings us back to Corrigan, whose first big moves on the file will be telling.

His leadership is an interesting paradox: a committed social democrat whose city does not have a homeless shelter, a battler for the underdog whose development strategies include significant teardowns for towers, and a politician who goes out of his way to attract every business but Kinder Morgan to town.

In the saddle as the council chair, he is but one small vote but one large voice. For anyone with a stake in the transit future, he is no longer the dissenting mayor who could be ignored, but the conscience who needs to be courted. 

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.