OTTAWA — A public inquiry into the issues plaguing Ottawa’s light rail transit system has found both city officials and contracted companies at fault for delivering an error-ridden, unreliable system after a 16-month delay.
Its final report says the city and the Rideau Transit Group consortium lost sight of the public interest amid political pressure to rush the $2.1-billion project across the finish line.
Justice William Hourigan has made 103 recommendations to fix problems caused by what his report says was “deliberate malfeasance.”
The report says two instances stood out as “egregious violations of the public trust”: the project’s unrealistic deadlines and the fact that information about testing was withheld from the public.
Hourigan wrote the timelines for the project were “entirely unrealistic.”
As a commercial tactic, he wrote, it was a “failure” because the deliberate communication of “unachievable dates” did nothing to improve the transit group’s standing with local business. Instead, it only served to accelerate mistrust.
“More fundamentally, it represented a troubling lack of concern for the public nature of the project and the interests of the people of Ottawa,” wrote Hourigan.
He added leaders “seemed to have given no thought to the fact that the provision of this misinformation adversely impacted the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people” — and that was a betrayal of citizens’ trust.
Critical information about the trial running of the light rail system was withheld from the city council and only provided to the mayor’s office and the chair of the city’s transit commission, the inquiry also found.
The report accuses then-mayor Jim Watson and other senior staff of deliberately misleading and spinning the public.
“Because the conduct was willful and deliberate, it leads to serious concerns about the good faith of senior city staff and raises questions about where their loyalties lie,” says the report. “It is difficult to imagine the successful completion of any significant project while these attitudes prevail within the municipal government.”
He added he found the conduct of former city manager Steve Kanellakos the “most troubling.”
Kanellakos stepped down from his position on Monday (Nov. 28) afternoon, saying he felt it was time for someone else to take the lead to implement the report’s recommendations.
Hourigan concluded the conduct of senior city staff and the mayor “irreparably compromised” council’s oversight. “Deliberate malfeasance is unacceptable in a public project.”
He wrote that evidence from Watson, Kanellakos and others did not “withstand scrutiny,” and the inquiry “does not accept it as a truthful explanation of what motivated the failure to communicate with council.”
The myriad issues with the system went far beyond the failures of communication on deadlines and testing.
Delays during construction posed a significant threat to the deadline and increased pressure to open the system early, the inquiry found.
Inexperience in handling a project of such magnitude also contributed to the issues that arose, including two derailments in August and September 2021, the report says. It adds the Rideau Transit Group’s relationship with the city was “adversarial” at critical stages during the construction and maintenance of the system.
Hourigan wrote infrastructure projects will not succeed unless those involved “understand that their first duty is to the public.”
Hourigan found governments must address the challenges that come when a city with little experience with major infrastructure undertakes such a large project.
One of his recommendations is for the Ontario provincial government to investigate how to develop skills and capabilities necessary to lead large infrastructure projects at the municipal level.
The province’s transportation minister, Caroline Mulroney, said in a statement that her government will continue to make sure that Ontario taxpayers and transit riders get the service they deserve.
“As a funding partner, provincial taxpayers deserve accountability for their money,” said Mulroney.
Yasir Naqvi, the federal Liberal MP for Ottawa Centre, told reporters the community wants a transit system that works.
“We need to make sure that the kind of mistakes and the ineffectiveness we saw in the system does not get repeated again,” said Naqvi, adding all three levels of government have invested to expand the system beyond the city’s downtown core.
© 2022 The Canadian Press