What role did Ontario play in the Ottawa LRT debacle?

OPINION: It’s possible Infrastructure Ontario did nothing wrong. But there are good reasons for a public inquiry to look at the agency’s actions
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 22, 2021
An OC Transpo O-Train is seen west of Tremblay LRT Station on September 20, 2021, a day after it derailed. (Justin Tang/CP)

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Transportation minister has been a pretty plum job under Doug Ford: the government’s plan to spend billions of dollars on highways and subways across the GTA gives lots of opportunities to deliver good news, and since those highways and subways don’t actually exist yet, they can’t cause the headaches that come from actually building things — the near-inevitable cost overruns and operational failures that happen in any large project.

The City of Ottawa has the misfortune of being several years into its light-rail projects, and one substantial section of the city’s plan has already opened, so the problems of a real-life transit project are no longer in the realm of the imaginary. “Opened” might not be the right word, however, for a train that struggles to operate when it’s too cold (good thing Ottawa never gets cold) or too hot. And, most recently, the train had a dramatic derailment that has been traced back to improperly tightened bolts.

Agenda segment, November 19, 2021: Tracking Ottawa's light-rail troubles

All this drama has moved Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney to do what this government wouldn’t with the thousands of dead in long-term care: call a formal public inquiry under the Public Inquiries Act. Except that, aside from announcing the government’s intentions to call the inquiry, Mulroney’s announcement last Thursday was decidedly short on details: the government hasn’t named a commissioner to lead the inquiry, nor has it settled on terms of reference to determine the precise scope of the inquiry.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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It's worth at least asking why this is a provincial matter at all: on the surface, it is a relatively narrow local matter, despite Ottawa’s status as the nation’s capital and one of Ontario’s most populous cities. It’s not like the Progressive Conservative government is above any suspicion of political shenanigans here, given that an inquiry allows it to put an unpleasant spotlight on a project that’s been backed by Liberal politicians at all three levels of government.

That said, there really is a provincial interest here, on at least two counts. The first is simply that large sums of provincial money have been spent on the current LRT, and more is being spent on the second phase. That alone would be enough excuse for the province to want to take a close look at what, if anything, has gone wrong here.

The other reason is that the province is funding and building light-rail projects elsewhere in Ontario, including on Eglinton and Finch West in Toronto, Hurontario Street in Mississauga, and (after some drama) in Hamilton. If there are lessons to be learned from Ottawa’s light-rail experience, by all means let’s learn them as thoroughly as possible.

But the province’s role doesn’t end there, and this is why the public inquiry’s terms of reference will be so important. While the Ottawa LRT isn’t a Metrolinx project (which would make the provincial involvement undeniable), it is a public-private partnership (P3) that was signed by the city with Infrastructure Ontario acting as a “commercial procurement advisor.” IO is the public agency whose raison d’etre is to build P3s that minimize risk to the taxpayer and speed development of key provincial infrastructure projects.

Mulroney didn’t sound enthusiastic on Thursday about turning the spotlight on IO’s role, saying “the public-private partnership model has worked well in this case,” though she did say that the province is willing to look at all sides of the problem, including IO’s. And it’s at least possible that IO is utterly blameless for what went wrong in Ottawa, where the city staff and council seem to be able to get into more than enough trouble on their own. I should be explicit about this: I don’t have any direct evidence to suggest that IO failed in its role here, and the agency played an identical role in the substantially less troubled Waterloo ION LRT.

The problem is that IO, and public-private partnerships, are so deeply built into some of the province’s big transportation projects — and are likely to play an enormous role in the billions the province wants to spend on other projects — that if that agency made even small errors that aren’t corrected elsewhere, the potential costs to Ontario could still be huge.

So, yes, let’s have a public inquiry into what’s gone wrong in the national capital. But let’s not ignore possible failures a lot closer to Queen’s Park, too.

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