Ontario’s first Progressive Conservative transportation minister in 15 years was given a seismic task by Premier Doug Ford when they took on their new portfolio: to bring the provincial transit agency Metrolinx to heel and re-evaluate its role entirely.
The 2018 mandate letter written for then-minister of transportation John Yakabuski — who was dropped from cabinet in 2021 — laid out a series of significant and potentially controversial changes. It included a complete re-evaluation of Metrolinx, a key Crown agency responsible for billions of dollars and millions of commuters, as well as the task of uploading Toronto’s subway system into the provincial fold.
The contents of the mandate letter have been a closely-guarded secret by Premier Ford and his government since they were first presented to his cabinet ministers in 2018, and the Supreme Court of Canada is currently considering a request to release them.
Global News has obtained and verified the letters, including the transportation minister’s marching orders, from sources not authorized to publicly release them.
Minister told to ‘fundamentally review’ Metrolinx
In the mandate letter approved by Premier Doug Ford, the transportation minister was directed to “fundamentally review” how Metrolinx operates and to decide whether “any institutional changes are needed at this agency.”
Metrolinx was created by the Ontario Liberal government in 2006 to manage public transit projects. It was tasked with coordinating massive expansions across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and runs both GO trains and buses.
In his mandate letter, Ford told his minister to make the agency more “accountable and efficient.”
Opponents and critics of the Ford government have long claimed that the Progressive Conservatives’ creeping control of Metrolinx poses a major threat to the agency — particularly its ability to make independent, evidence-based decisions that are intended to outlive governments.
Sources close to Metrolinx previously told Global News they felt the government began to control the agency immediately after the 2018 election — a process the minister’s mandate letter appears to confirm.
People with knowledge of the relationship said the government had been “picking away” at the agency’s ability to communicate with the public since then.
Sources familiar with processes at Metrolinx told Global News the Ford government had long held concerns about the organization’s mandate to communicate independently.
In his mandate letter, one of the reasons given by Ford to take more control of Metrolinx was its potential role in uploading the Toronto subway system to be built under the direction of provincial politicians.
“Work alongside the Minister of Infrastructure and Municipal Affairs and Housing to complete the upload of the Toronto subway system through proper negotiation with the City of Toronto,” the mandate letter instructed. “Fulfill our promise to leave labour relations, operations, and farebox revenues with the City.”
That process, which eventually gave birth to the Ontario Line, was abandoned by the province in 2019 — two transportation ministers later. It was in the party’s platform before the 2018 election.
New subways and the private sector
Soon after being appointed, Ford’s new transportation minister was given a $5-billion budget to spend on new subway projects across the Greater Toronto Area. Ford ordered his minister to “immediately” start working on a subway extension to Richmond Hill and one in Scarborough.
The letter paid special attention to the role the private sector should play in making sure public transit was built, funded and operated.
The directive told the transportation minister to “encourage the use of private capital” to build subways when possible and to find developers to buy the air rights to build housing above subway stations before the projects even began.
Ford also told his housing minister to look at which Ontario transit projects “could be better opened and operated by large financial investors like pension plans.”
Highway 407 provides an example of a financial investor running publicly built infrastructure. The company that bought the rights to operate the route is 50.01 per cent owned by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.
The transportation minister was told to build the projects “as quickly as possible.”
The role of Highway 413
Missing from the mandate letter was a key first-term Ford government policy — Highway 413. The premier eventually used the policy to define his successful 2022 run for re-election, and it was included in the 2018 election platform.
Highway 413, the new 400-series highway set to run from Milton to Vaughan, is not mentioned anywhere in the letter handed to Ford’s first transportation minister.
The mandate letter mentions twinning highways 3 and 17, as well as the widening of Highway 401, but it does not mention the controversial route. The project was a lightning rod of criticism for the government throughout its first term, with environmental advocates decrying the impact it could have on protected species and areas on the edge of the Greenbelt.
The project is currently suspended after the federal government stepped in to assess if the route will harm endangered species.
Mandate letter: transportation
Here is the mandate letter given to Ontario’s Minister of Transportation in 2018:
- Fundamentally review the function and structure of Metrolinx and determine if any institutional changes are needed at this agency to make it more accountable and efficient. This is especially important as regional transit planning becomes a greater priority through the proposed subway upload.
- Work alongside the Minister of Infrastructure and Municipal Affairs and Housing to complete the upload of the Toronto subway system through proper negotiation with the City of Toronto. Fulfill our promise to leave labour relations, operations, and farebox revenues with the City. Once completed, invest $5 billion in new capital investments in Greater Toronto Area subways and immediately begin work on priority projects including: the relief line, the Yonge extension to Richmond Hill, and closing the Sheppard loop with Scarborough.
- Re-evaluate the process of future transit builds by ensuring the province looks to develop air rights from the beginning of projects, encourages the use of private capital where possible through multiple route bidding, and by evaluating which Ontario transit projects could be better owned and operated by large institutional investors like pension plans.
- Continue important work on regional transportation projects across Ontario and work with the Minister of Infrastructure to get these projects built as quickly as possible. Work with our municipal partners in securing the future of these important projects.
- Work with the Minister of Northern Development and Mines to return the Ontario Northlander train service to the North.
- Create or update regional transportation plans to reflect our previously promised commitments – such as widening highway 401 and twinning highways 3 and 17 – and ensure that all options are evaluated when considering regional projects.
- Continue to deliver two-way all day GO projects across the province including proceeding with GO regional express rail electrification as necessary to complete this project.
- Work with the Minister of Energy and the Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks to evaluate low-carbon technologies, such as natural gas trucking and bussing, that can be implemented in Ontario with limited intrusion and cost to taxpayers. Ensure these investments deliver the best value-for-money possible.
- Work with the Minister of Indigenous Affairs and the Minister of Northern Development and Mines to develop solutions to Northern transportation issues – including reducing the aviation fuel tax for the North and evaluating the state of Ontario’s Indigenous airfields.
This story is the fifth story in the new Global News series ‘Mandated.’ Over several days, a series of stories will reveal the contents of the Ford government’s first set of mandate letters, handed to ministers after the party formed government in 2018. The letters have been kept secret since Doug Ford’s first election — a battle that has gone all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Photo illustration by Janet Cordahi