Local MPPs doubt whether province is taking LRT report recommendations seriously

The O-Train line 1, An Alstom Citadis Spirit LRV, part of the light rail transit in Ottawa, Canada. June 23, 2021

Ottawa’s much-maligned light rail transit system is a blueprint for how not to do P3 projects in future, government officials agree. However, at least two local MPPs say the Conservative government is not taking those lessons seriously enough.

Many of the project’s shortcomings were detailed in a public inquiry report led by Justice William Hourigan. The final report, which was 664 pages long and made 103 recommendations, was released Nov. 30, 2022.

Orleans Liberal MPP Stephen Blais says there has been no debate in the provincial legislature since the Inquiry report was released.

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“I think (the Conservative government) just want to forget about it,” Blais said. 

“I have not seen any evidence that the Ford government or Metrolinx are taking the final report’s recommendations to heart,” said Blais, who was interviewed during the inquiry because he was chair of the Ottawa Transit Commission from 2014 to 2018 when he was on Ottawa city council. 

“I have no doubt that the government and Metrolinx have reviewed the report, but there is a difference between reading something and acting on it,” Blais added.

A spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney says work is underway to address the recommendations in the inquiry report. 

“Metrolinx, the Ontario government’s Crown agency that manages road and public transport in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, has been told to make sure that the inquiry’s recommendations are followed,” said Dakota Brasier, senior spokesperson for the minister, in an email. “This is about ensuring we do not repeat the situation we saw in Ottawa.”

Following the release of the final report, Brasier added, the minister issued a letter of direction to Metrolinx stressing that it must continue to work closely with the provincial government to address and implement the report’s recommendations. 

“The letter includes a requirement for Metrolinx to provide detailed plans for testing and commissioning of other projects underway.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Infrastructure said many of the recommendations of the public inquiry into the Ottawa LRT project were already being implemented before the report was released. 

“The Ministry of Infrastructure works with Infrastructure Ontario (IO) to deliver infrastructure projects that are critical to the continued growth and prosperity of Ontario. IO had already adopted changes that align with many of the inquiry commissioner’s recommendations before the inquiry was ever called. The province is continuing to review the recommendations of the (inquiry),” said Sofia Sousa-Dias, a spokesperson for the ministry, in an email.

P3 projects are public-private partnerships that involve long-term agreements between a public agency and a private entity to design, build, finance, operate and maintain an infrastructure project. A P3 involves the private sector taking on some of the project’s financial risks.

The provincial government called the public inquiry into Ottawa’s $2.1-billion LRT project in November 2021 because of numerous delays in completing the project and the reliability of the service once it was completed. 

Both the provincial and federal governments, along with the City of Ottawa, helped fund the first phase of the LRT project.

One of the main themes of the final report was that all parties involved lost sight of the “public” nature of the project.

“Until such time as the private and public entities involved in the … project understand that their first obligation is to the public, there is reason to be concerned that the project will continue to suffer problems,” the report said.

Ottawa West-Nepean NDP MPP Chandra Pasma says the province should have whistleblower legislation for large-scale projects going forward.

“There should not be any P3 projects, they should be public projects in the future which would give more public oversight right from the start,” Pasma told OBJ.

Blais said that, while the provincial NDP is against P3 projects on principle, the provincial Liberals believe P3 projects should be evaluated on “a case-by-case basis.” 

“It depends on the project and what provides the best value for taxpayers,” Blais said.

When asked about the viability of P3 projects earlier this year by OBJ, Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said the city would review the report to make sure that large-scale public and private projects are better designed and managed from now on. 

“Once we have more time to look at the recommendations from the inquiry, we will be able to make further improvements to how these projects are rolling out. There’s a lot to do obviously, but I’m optimistic about public-private partnerships in the future. 

“I’m not sure (the inquiry) is a statement about public-private partnerships or the issues that arose with this specific project and that there’s any reason to put an end to partnerships,” he adds. 

“I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned in terms of how we structure partnerships going forward and the parameters that need to be placed on them.” 

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