Report into Ottawa LRT failures says municipal megaprojects need better oversight

ottawa lrt tunnel image


A report into Ottawa’s problem-plagued light-rail transit system illustrates why municipalities with limited experience stickhandling large-scale projects need better oversight if they are going to take them on, says an expert on infrastructure.

“There is a point where you have to admit that you screwed up and you’re not capable of doing this,” said James McKellar, a professor of real estate and infrastructure in the Schulich School of Business at York University.

Last week’s final report from a public inquiry into the LRT system pointed fingers at both the company managing the project and the City of Ottawa for its many failures.

The deliberate decision by municipal officials to withhold vital information from Ottawa city council on the state of the LRT system prevented the council from “exercising its statutory oversight function on the critical issue of the system’s reliability and readiness for operation,” Justice William Hourigan, the commissioner of the inquiry, wrote in his report.

A model that had the Rideau Transit Group, a consortium of companies, design, build, finance and maintain the LRT system also contributed to a loss of oversight and control by the city.

McKellar said this goes back to the lack of experience that municipalities have in handling large infrastructure projects, which is also something Hourigan mentioned in his report.

He suggested that going forward, the city needs to own up to its lack of expertise and either ask to collaborate or hand over the reins to those who will be able to bring the project to completion.

Joel Harden, the NDP member of provincial parliament for Ottawa Centre, said the report suggested all levels of government need to carefully evaluate their use of public-private partnerships to fund projects.

“The story we’ve heard here is a cautionary tale about how we cannot pursue private, secretive agreements that elected officials cannot scrutinize. We have to be able to ask the questions so that people get the answers,” said Harden.

He also noted the Rideau Transit Group is involved with the Stage 2 expansion of the system.

McKellar said the public-private partnership model is a tough one to navigate, but it is not the model itself that is flawed. It is about the level of knowledge of those working within it, he said.

Hourigan was critical of the lack of support from the provincial and federal governments. He recommended the province investigate how to develop the skills and capabilities needed to lead large infrastructure projects at the municipal level.

The report said the province should ensure “ongoing access to expert advice and guidance throughout the project, from procurement through to construction and operations, particularly with respect to managing the relationship with the private-sector partner.”

McKellar said municipalities are sometimes reluctant to give oversight authority to other governing parties.

But Ajay Agarwal, an associate professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University, said oversight means more than one party hovering over another — it’s a process that can be highly beneficial when participants collaborate.

“I would hope that the City of Ottawa gets its act together,” he said, adding that it should not treat the Ontario and federal government as “meddling into their affairs.” He said the city should “embrace them as somebody who’s inviting you to work properly.”

John Fraser, a Liberal member of provincial parliament, said all levels of government need to work toward restoring public trust. He said the way to do that is by sharing the responsibility.

“It has to be shared governance,” he said. “Everybody’s got financial skin in the game, they’re making significant contributions. Part of the oversight over that project (is) to ensure that portion, which you had contributed, was spent the right way.”

The federal and provincial departments of infrastructure did not immediately respond to questions about oversight for their share of funding for the LRT system project.


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