Update: Watson unfazed by SNC-Lavalin concerns as Ford delivers $1.2B funding on stage 2 LRT

Premier Doug Ford announces Ontario's $1.2-billion contribution to the second phase of Ottawa's light-rail transit line, as Mayor Jim Watson stands by. Photo by Asen Aleksandrov.

Ontario premier Doug Ford confirmed a $1.21-billion commitment from the province to help fund the second phase of Ottawa’s light-rail transit line during an announcement Friday morning, despite fresh concerns over the choice of SNC-Lavalin to develop a portion of the project.

The Ontario government’s commitment mirrors a $1.2-billion contribution from the federal government towards the $4.66-billion contract approved by council earlier this month to extend Ottawa's LRT east, west and south by 2025.

A consortium comprised of Nebraska-based Kiewit and French contractor Vinci will extend the light-rail line west to Moodie Drive and east to Orléans, while a subsidiary of Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin will build out the extension to Riverside South. SNC-Lavalin, which is currently embroiled in a federal political scandal over charges of fraud, is also a member of the Rideau Transit Group consortium building the first phase of the LRT’s Confederation Line.

Ford was asked by reporters whether his government feels comfortable releasing the funds originally promised by the previous Liberal regime, citing concerns raised in a CBC News article published Friday morning that alleged bid-winner SNC-Lavalin failed to meet baseline technical standards for the project.

The premier passed the question on to Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who said that the selection had been “approved by the fairness commissioner (and) unanimously by the selection committee,” adding that the decision had ultimately been made by “staff, not by politicians.”

While city staff declined to provide answers to city councillors on whether SNC-Lavalin met the technical qualifications before the March 6 vote to approve the phase two contracts, director of O-Train planning Chris Swail said then that the Montreal firm’s proposal came with the lowest cost of any other bid.

Watson stressed Friday that the SNC-Lavalin decision is “the best deal for taxpayers.”

“Without stage two, we could never even dream of stage three, which will bring us to Kanata, Stittsville and Barrhaven,” Mayor Jim Watson said of the project, which he described as the biggest infrastructural undertaking in the history of Ottawa.

“Stage two will also (eliminate) more than 900,000 annual bus trips into our city’s downtown core and remove 14,000 cars on our highways and roads during rush hour. This project is also the city’s biggest investment in a green and sustainable future,” Watson said.

At the mention of stage three, Ford declined to confirm provincial funding for the third leg of the project, saying he'd wait until the first two phases are complete before making commitments.

Previously pegged at a price tag of $3.6 billion, the cost of stage two LRT has since ballooned to $4.7 billion and has been delayed by two years. The project is now expected to be completed in 2025.

Many city councillors were upset with what they perceived as a lack of transparency in the LRT procurement process and tight timeline to approve the massive contracts. Nonetheless, city council voted 19-3 in favour of moving forward with city staff’s choices of preferred proponents in the project.

– With files from Craig Lord