The consortium tasked to oversee the design, construction, financing and maintenance for phase one of Ottawa’s Light Rail Transit project has issued a statement following a public inquiry that found both city officials and contracted companies were at fault for delivering an error-ridden, unreliable system after a 16-month delay.
The final report, released Nov. 30, says the city and Rideau Transit Group (RTG) lost sight of the public interest amid political pressure to rush the $2.1-billion project across the finish line.
Justice William Hourigan made 103 recommendations to fix problems caused by what his report says was “deliberate malfeasance.”
“We acknowledge that all parties, including RTG and its subcontractors, have work to do to restore the public’s confidence in the city’s light rail system,” the group, which is comprised of ACS Infrastructure Canada, EllisDon and SNC-Lavalin, said in a statement.
“That work starts with a renewed commitment to working together on a path forward in the spirit of partnership required of all of us.
“We have listened, engaged in, and taken this process very seriously. We know that Ottawa’s LRT is important to the community – connecting people to their friends, families, jobs and activities. We would like to reiterate our commitment to continue to improve the safety and reliability of Ottawa’s LRT, for the benefit of Ottawans.”
The Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships (CCPPP) thanked the Ottawa Light Rail Transit Public Inquiry for its report but emphasized not all P3s should be painted with the same brush.
“Transit projects are among the most complicated infrastructure projects, given the significant distances they cover and the known and unknown risks they encounter from geotechnical conditions, engineering challenges and responsibilities for relocating utilities along the route, in addition to the complexity of linking the project with existing transit lines, the consideration of future expansions and the procurement, commissioning, operation and maintenance of rolling stock,” said Lisa Mitchell, president and CEO of the CCPPP, in a statement. “A singular transit project is never an island in and of itself.”
The inquiry report says two instances stood out as “egregious violations of the public trust”: the project’s unrealistic deadlines and the fact information about testing was withheld from the public.
Among other things, it found there was inexperience in handling a project of such magnitude, which also contributed to the issues that arose, including two derailments in August and September 2021. It adds RTG’s relationship with the city was “adversarial” at critical stages during the construction and maintenance of the system.
Mitchell stated the CCPPP supports the recommendation for the Ontario government to find ways “to develop skills and capabilities at the municipal level to lead complex infrastructure projects and have ongoing access to expert advice and guidance throughout the project, particularly with respect to managing the relationship with the private-sector partner.”
But it disagreed with how the inquiry viewed the future of infrastructure procurement.
“For more than three decades, P3s have successfully been used by all levels of government across Canada to design, build, finance, operate and maintain publicly owned infrastructure, ranging from hospitals and other social infrastructure to highways, transit and water and wastewater systems,” she said. “The model was adopted to combat the all too frequent delays and cost overruns experienced on traditionally procured projects – something upon which the model has time and again delivered.”
According to the CCPPP statement, Hourigan did note the City of Ottawa saved more than $100 million after a sinkhole opened up on Rideau Street in 2016 because of the P3 agreement’s transfer of geotechnical risk to RTG.
Mitchell said over the coming weeks and months, as the CCPPP looks at “how best to refine the P3 model,” they will examine the inquiry’s recommendations to “reinforce the core belief that ‘government and private-sector entities must act in a manner that furthers the broader public interest’ and that ‘the public has the right to safe, reliable infrastructure.’”
Hourigan concluded the conduct of senior city staff, especially former Ottawa city manager Steve Kanellakos and then mayor Jim Watson “irreparably compromised” council’s oversight.
“Deliberate malfeasance is unacceptable in a public project.”
Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said in a statement her government will continue to make sure Ontario taxpayers and transit riders get the service they deserve.
RTG added in its statement: “We look forward to working with (newly-elected) Mayor (Mark) Sutcliffe, the new city council and with city staff on addressing the issues raised throughout the process and on strengthening our collaboration with all our partners to deliver on our shared goal of providing the people of Ottawa with a safe, reliable transit system.”
— With files from The Canadian Press