December 8, 2020

The Precarious State of Bowinn Ma

Bowinn Ma is the provincial Minister of State for Infrastructure.  A Minister of State, not an actual Minister (as many of her fans anticipated).  But she nonetheless has a rather ambitious to-do list.

This* is what’s in her Mandate Letter:

  • Extend the Millennium Line to Arbutus, with an eventual terminus at UBC
  • Prompt design and construction of the Surrey-Langley Skytrain.
  • Widen Highway 1 through the Fraser Valley
  • Replace the Massey crossing
  • Complete the Pattullo Bridge Replacement Project.
  • Support planning for key transit projects, like high-speed transit links for the North Shore and the expansion of rail up the Fraser Valley.

In short: the biggest roads and the longest trains.  Not all on her own, of course; responsibilities for TransLink alone are split among three Ministers of various kinds.   But the part of her portfolio that she will be tested on will be getting the big road projects unstoppably underway before the next election.

So if conflict is to occur, it’s less likely to be among her colleagues than between her mandate and her rhetoric when it comes to shaping growth with big-time road infrastructure.

The implicit expectation by the Premier may be that the high-growth parts of our region – east of Langley, south of the Fraser – can become more like the region he represents (Langford and the western communities of Victoria), where working people should still be able to afford a house to drive to and won’t pay tolls to get there. And to do that we need more big roads, bridges (or tunnels), with some incidental room for transit.

Ma has argued that such a strategy is futile.  Widening highways and building untolled crossings to reduce congestion just begets more congestion.  (She made a celebrated speech in the Legislature on that very point – here.)


So why would the Premier appoint an MLA whose public position is that the era of big roads is (or should be) over?  The chattering classes (Price Tags division) have come up with some possible reasons:

(1) The obvious one.

She’s an engineering project manager.  If you want someone who knows about complex infrastructure projects, get someone who does.


(2) The other obvious one:

She’s ideal for dealing with the public on transportation.  She proved she could perform in her riding on the North Shore, where she convincingly moved forward the possibility of SkyTrain coming to one of the slowest growing parts of the region.


(3) It’s about loyalty (or punishment).

Ma might have been the AOC leader to a squad of urban activists in the legislature – if such existed – but this appointment makes it more difficult for her to follow through on her own rhetoric.  The NDP, after all, got all those new seats in unlikely places like mid-Valley – Mission, Maple Ridge, Abbotsford – and that means scratching the very itchy irritant of congestion..

To the Premier, it’s a chance to see whether Ma has learned where her place is.  ‘We need highways to win and keep votes.  No fancy talk about not building wider roads and more river crossings.’


(4) It’s about risk.

Bringing home large infrastructure involves risk and reward.   If the project or the financing screws up, she takes the blame – but the Premier cuts the ribbons if it’s a success. She either drives the bus home or gets thrown under it.


(5) It’s a message to the region and the left.

Some in the NDP’s activist wing are pissed.  They feel the voice of moderation, particularly the Premier’s, is a defense of the status quo when progressive action is politically possible. And there’s not much evidence that the party is really interested in active transportation, certainly not road pricing, and barely aware of the importance of land use to meet climate-change targets. In fact, the NDP seem to be happy to expand freeway projects just like governments going back to W.A.C. Bennett in the ’50s.

So who better to provide cover than an advocate for post-Motordom thinking but can still get the car-dominant, climate-unfriendly roads and bridges built – now.  Activists may be unhappy but not so disgruntled that they’ll do a stop-the-pipeline strategy on these projects.

Alternative theory: She’s there to delay things like the Massey Tunnel so it, like highway expansions, can all get rethought.


(6) It’s about her chance to shine – and shape the region

If Ma is responsible for the latest round of Motordom projects, locking the eastern and southern parts of the region into car-dependence, she’ll also have to deliver something that addresses climate and better urban growth in a way that’s more than token – not just some more bike lanes.  She can be the one who does both, using the delivery of roads to justify some dramatic moves on the alternatives, without seeming either hopelessly radical or oblivious.

(Here’s one: For the price of an interchange, everyone in Abbotsford gets an e-bike!)

In other words, she has to turn the generality of that last item on her mandate – “the planning and  development of key transit projects, like high-speed transit links for the North Shore and the expansion of rail up the Fraser Valley” – into tangible reality.

Bowinn Ma could be just the leader who can do what the NDP did in the 70s – produce the 21st-century equivalent of the Agricultural Land Reserve, a strategy to shape the growth of the fastest growing parts of the province into a model for a climate-challenged age.

Something that might even take her from Minister of State to ultimately First Minister.



*From Bowinn Ma’s Mandate Letter:

Over the course of our mandate, I expect you will work with your Minister to make progress on the following items:

● Support our economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic by working with the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure to advance critical pieces of transportation infrastructure that will benefit communities across B.C.

● Work with the TransLink Mayors’ Council through its 10-year planning process to continue work to extend the Millennium Line to Arbutus, with an eventual terminus at UBC, and ensure prompt design and construction of the Surrey-Langley Skytrain.

● Widen Highway 1 through the Fraser Valley to ease congestion, with a goal of completing the widening of the highway as far as Whatcom Road by 2026.

● Move ahead with a replacement for the Massey crossing, to support communities on both sides.

● Ensure the successful completion of the Pattullo Bridge Replacement Project.

● Work with cabinet colleagues, communities and regions to support the planning and  development of key transit projects, like high-speed transit links for the North Shore and the expansion of rail up the Fraser Valley, which will bring cleaner transit, support economic growth and deliver more construction jobs for B.C. workers.




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  1. “Widen Highway 1 through the Fraser Valley to ease congestion”

    This sort of thing gets me every time. Why do people still believe it?

    1. How is it even legal to include this type of language in a major project plan?

      All of these ministers understand the concept of induced demand and it’s been proven irrefutably, time and time again.

      It’s deliberately misleading the tax-paying public and then using their money to subsidize the fantasies of people tax payers in Maple Ridge et. al

      1. I’m sure that the ministers do know that this will not ease congestion, but it’s blacktop politics pure and simple. And blacktop politics still works. Witness the toll removal pledge. Probably the worst thing the NDP did.

        And induced demand is part of the point. Some of the increased usage is just pure induced demand from current residents, but some is caused by growth: more people, more subdivisions, more strip malls, more big boxes and all that. When it is spurred on by road construction the form of that growth is more likely to be auto-dependent trash, but plenty of people don’t care about that. Clearly a political plurality don’t care about that. They just want growth of any sort.

    2. A three lane highway 1 in each direction ie six lanes to Chiliwack is a total no-brainer for anyone who lives out there or drives there frequently. Or lose those precarious votes next election! And yes a train too and more bike lanes. Tolls too make sense but for whatever reason that seems unreasonable.

      Realpolitik folks – Realpolitik !

      Not that I am a huge fan of the big gov NDP but John Horgan is grounded in reality for sure – unlike his former Green Party partners.

      1. If Vancouver can boost its population, jobs, amenities and economy in general all while reducing MV traffic then Chilliwack can do it too. Why would we push for things that don’t work when we have examples of things that do? Where does your fetish for big wide asphalt come from?

  2. *Because the vast majority of our species thinks short term, not long term.
    *Because we generally learn very little from history, and then forget what we learned.
    *Because we barely teach history to our children.
    *Because we want to privatize the benefits of commerce, and socialize the costs (hello, oil companies who don’t close depleted wells; coal-fired power plants that spew particulates into the air, etc.).

  3. Thanks, Gordon, for pointing out that Ms Ma has been placed in a very unenviable position that reflects the issue with the environmental program of the etirety of the NDP government itself – how to look progressive on environmental issues without alienating those supporters who really are progressive – part of “smoke and mirrors” illusions. There’s no way she can succeed. Hence, she and her role will be replaced when this becomes apparent. The government will appoint a suitable replacement, or they’ll just hope no one notices their failure and even insincirety.

  4. “For the price of an interchange, everyone in Abbotsford gets an e-bike!”

    Well, for the price of City of North Van’s so called Green Necklace ( a black ribbon or asphalt cut through the City’s green parks and green medians), CNV could have bought every citizen an actual bicycle.

    If the motivation was to get your citizens using alternate, active transportation, give it to them, across city, instead of a lan ugly, destructive ribbon of limited utility.

    There’s as many cyclists that still use Grand Blvd (the regular East road, not the closed off West NB lane) than do the paths.

    A N. Shore SkyTrain would share similar hallmarks to the necklace:overpriced, underutilized and designed for a user who’s needs have been misunderstood.

    CNV faced the same confused objectives w/Esplanade bike lanes now.

    1. those who opposed building the canada line claimed that no one would ride it —– there is not enough capacity —- North shore sky train will reduce bridge congestion —-as the canada line has

  5. the minister of social media refuses to accept the fact there have been dozens of high-end development targeting overseas clients that increased traffic. Her narrative is a distraction from real issues.She dodges and weaves like a liberal

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