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Commuters walk from transit at Surrey Central Station in downtown Surrey, British Columbia on March 15, 2017.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The new leader of the Lower Mainland's mayors' transit council says he believes that the group will need to make some tough choices in the new year about which of the B.C. region's three planned major projects should get priority.

"They've got to look at what is a realistic strategy. I'll have a very frank discussion about what's doable," said Derek Corrigan, the Burnaby mayor who wrested the chairmanship of the TransLink mayors' council away from Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson in a surprising vote by the region's 21 mayors in early December.

Mr. Corrigan said that, until now, no one wanted to talk about whether the Surrey light-rail project, the Broadway subway in Vancouver, or the the Pattullo Bridge connecting New Westminster to Surrey should take precedence.

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That was because the group wanted to prevent any public disagreements about whether Vancouver or Surrey, whose mayors were the leaders of the previous TransLink mayors' council, should go first.

But Mr. Corrigan said it's unrealistic to think all three projects, which he has maintained for years are too ambitious, can proceed at exactly the same pace. And he's not sure whether TransLink, the regional transportation authority for the Lower Mainland, has the capacity to oversee three such big projects at once.

One of his first initiatives in the new year – once he recovers from a badly sprained ankle and takes his annual sun holiday – will be to talk to B.C.'s new NDP government about whether the province shouldn't take over the management of one or more projects.

Although Mr. Corrigan will have only one vote on the board, all of those statements from the new TransLink mayors' spokesman are just the kind of talk that has had transit advocates on tenterhooks in the region, wondering what will happen now. Just as it appeared the region, province, and federal government were on the verge of a major agreement to spend billions on the 10-year transit plan for the area and its three big projects, the new regional leader is the man who opposed the plan and has always thought it was too ambitious.

The question for many now is: Will Derek Corrigan, the designated spokesman for 20 other mayors who voted in favour of the plan, be a different Derek Corrigan from the no-holds-barred critic who berated them about the plan's failings?

Mr. Corrigan, a former criminal lawyer and avid rugby player, has an unusual reputation among mayors in the region. He and his left-wing party, which have dominated Burnaby city council since 1987, are famous – some would say infamous – in the region for their idiosyncratic stands on housing issues.

There is no homeless shelter in this third-largest city in B.C., nor any co-operation, until just recently, with the provincial government to provide new social housing, nor any policy to prevent the demolition of low-cost rental apartments that are going down by the hundreds and being replaced by condo towers. Despite growing protest over that, Mr. Corrigan's team has remained united in saying that they are steering the right course.

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Mr. Corrigan, who doesn't hesitate to tear a strip off any political colleague whom he thinks is unprepared or exhibiting fuzzy thinking, is not best known for making allies or forging long-term alliances.

Instead, after a three-year stint as the chair of B.C. Transit in the mid-1990s with the NDP government, he has been the devil's advocate on many issues within the region or involving the subsequent Liberal government. He has lost a few prizes for Burnaby – the Olympic skating rink, an extra station on the Evergreen Line – through his intransigence when it comes to negotiating with the province.

But those who have worked with him in the past say that the region could very well see a different Derek Corrigan as he takes on the role of representing all the mayors. That Mr. Corrigan could end up being a strong advocate and negotiator for the plan he has criticized so often.

Former Saanich mayor Frank Leonard sat on the Municipal Finance Authority (MFA) board with Mr. Corrigan for many years. Both Mr. Corrigan and his wife, Kathy, who worked with the Canadian Union of Public Employees before being elected an MLA, had been highly critical of the MFA. They questioned the authority's decision to get involved with the financing for the Canada Line – the rapid transit line between Richmond and downtown Vancouver funded by a public-private partnership that unions and the NDP were critical of. But Mr. Corrigan ended up becoming a member of that board.

"He still had his sharpness. But he was a different person inside the tent than when he was outside," Mr. Leonard said. "When you're on the outside, you can shoot pretty freely without consequences. "But he acted as a representative of others in that organization, not as the outsider critic. That didn't mean he didn't ask pointed questions, as always."

Mr. Leonard predicts that both the TransLink mayors' council and the board, where Mr. Corrigan will sit as a representative, "will feel his contrarian questions." But those will be good ones, he believes – questions that will ensure there isn't too much group-think about how to get things done. Other mayors in the region also note that Mr. Corrigan will still only have one vote on the council and the board.

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Metro Vancouver chairman Greg Moore, also the mayor of Port Coquitlam, said a lot of the decisions about the 10-year plan will be made by the board and bureaucrats – not the mayors' council. "We have very little authority."

But he is hopeful that Mr. Corrigan will use his skills and political connections to shepherd the plan through.

"I hope that he does become the advocate. That would be wonderful. He hasn't supported the plan so far."

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