'Egregious violations of public trust': LRT rushed into service, commission finds

The Ottawa Light Rail Transit Public Inquiry has released its final report into the city's problem-plagued LRT network, making more than 100 recommendations on how to repair 'egregious violations of public trust.' (Stu Mills/CBC - image credit)
The Ottawa Light Rail Transit Public Inquiry has released its final report into the city's problem-plagued LRT network, making more than 100 recommendations on how to repair 'egregious violations of public trust.' (Stu Mills/CBC - image credit)

Both city officials and the companies that built Ottawa's troubled Confederation Line made "egregious" errors during the construction and testing of the $2.1-billion LRT — errors that raise questions about whether the city is fit to oversee such massive infrastructure projects, according to the final report from the Ottawa Light Rail Transit Public Inquiry.

The city and Rideau Transit Group (RTG), which includes SNC-Lavalin, ACS Infrastructure and Ellis Don, lost sight of the public interest in their race to finish the LRT, which was late by more than 15 months, according to the report.

It's clear the Confederation Line "was rushed into service" by RTG, which was under financial pressure due to construction delays and political pressure from the city, says the report.

Justice William Hourigan, the inquiry's commissioner, released his 664-page report, complete with 103 recommendations for how to prevent similar issues in the future, on Wednesday morning.

It's the culmination of almost a year's work by the commission, which received a million documents, interviewed more than 90 witnesses and heard from more than 40 of them during 19 days of public hearings this past summer.

In his conclusion, Hourigan wrote: "While human errors are understandable and expected, deliberate malfeasance is unacceptable in a public project. When participants deliberately mislead the public regarding the status of a public undertaking, they violate a fundamental obligation that underlies all public endeavours."

Since its September 2019 launch, the Confederation Line has been hampered by a litany of problems: malfunctioning doors, flattened and cracked wheels, faulty overhead power lines and broken axles, to name just a few.

Hourigan said there were many issues that led to the wide array of problems, including a pair of derailments last year — one near Tremblay station shut down LRT for nearly two months.

However, he singled out two instances in the project "that stand out as egregious violations of public trust."

Misleading timelines 'unconscionable'

He blasted RTG and its construction arm, OLRT-C, for repeatedly giving the city completion dates that it knew were "entirely unrealistic."

"It was unconscionable that RTG and its main sub-contractor knowingly gave the City inaccurate information about when they would finish building the LRT," Hourigan wrote in his report, adding that the gambit failed on a commercial level and further strained RTG's already tense relationship with the city.

Worse, said Hourigan, is that the public suffered from the repeated misinformation.

"The leadership at RTG and OLRT-C seemed to have given no thought to the fact that the provision of this misinformation adversely impacted the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The people of Ottawa trusted RTG and OLRT-C to be straight with the City and tell them honestly when the system would be ready.

"The Commission finds that RTG and OLRT-C betrayed that trust," he wrote.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In a statement sent Wednesday night, RTG acknowledged the group and its subcontractors "have work to do to restore the public's confidence" in the LRT.

RTG said it's committed to working together with new Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, council and staff to address the issues raised.

"We have listened, engaged in, and taken this process very seriously," reads the RTG statement.

Harsh words for former mayor, manager

Hourigan also had harsh words for both former city manager Steve Kanellakos, who resigned Monday, and former mayor Jim Watson for withholding information from the rest of council about the final testing phase of the Confederation Line, known as the trial running.

Council wasn't told that the testing criteria for the LRT had been lowered to allow it to pass its final testing phase.

"This conduct irreparably compromised the legal oversight ability of Council and raises serious concerns about whether the City of Ottawa can properly complete significant infrastructure projects," Hourigan wrote.

It also "prevented councillors from fulfilling their statutory duties to the people of Ottawa. Moreover, it is part of a concerning approach taken by senior City officials to control the narrative by the nondisclosure of vital information or outright misrepresentation," he found.

WATCH | The LRT commission produced this video as summary of report's findings:

"Worse, because the conduct was wilful and deliberate, it leads to serious concerns about the good faith of senior City staff and raises questions about where their loyalties lie.

"It is difficult to imagine the successful completion of any significant project while these attitudes prevail within the municipal government."

He added there is no reason to believe the conduct during the trial running was an "aberration or that transparency has improved within the city."

A litany of problems

Hourigan found that the Confederation Line' problems were a consequence of myriad factors. Those include:

  • The city chose an Alstom train with unproven technology that strained the limits of what an LRT system could do.

  • RTG did not coordinate the work of its subcontractors and failed to ensure the integration of the various systems and components.

  • The relationship between the city and RTG became too adversarial, and Ottawa residents "face the spectre of a largely dysfunctional partnership operating and maintaining its light rail system for decades."

  • The City rushed the LRT system into service before it was ready, largely due to political and public pressure.

  • RTG and its subcontractors did not provide adequate maintenance.

The recommendations also include that an independent monitor keep city council and the transit commission informed about ongoing changes and issues.

Hourigan also recommends that all levels of government examine whether a public-private-partnership (P3) contract model, used here for the first time ever in a transit project in Ontario, is appropriate.

Nicholas Cleroux/Radio-Canada
Nicholas Cleroux/Radio-Canada

Failure to collaborate

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Hourigan and the inquiry's lawyers hammered home a key theme: that the city and RTG failed to work collaboratively, to the detriment of both the project and the residents of Ottawa.

"The people who live in this city, who visit it, deserve to have confidence that the LRT system is safe and that it will get them to where they need to go, on time, reliably, every time they get on the train," said co-lead counsel Kate McGrann.

"People and entities engaged in public infrastructure projects like this must always, always always keep that public interest at the forefront of everything they do," she said. "And that, as a guiding principle, was lacking at times — very key times — in this project."

Provincial taxpayers deserve accountability for their money. - Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney

McGrann said it was the commission's hope that the 103 recommendations would not just ensure the existing LRT network runs smoothly, but also guide the line's Stage 2 expansions.

The commission's lawyers also criticized the city's daily recaps, which were sent out during the 19 days of testimony, saying it was something they'd never seen before at a public inquiry.

"We need to return to accountability and transparency with the City of Ottawa, rather than information control and spin," said co-lead counsel John Adair.

Ontario's Progressive Conservative government called the public inquiry in November 2021, after Ottawa city council voted against a judicial inquiry and settled on an investigation by the city's auditor general.

In a statement, Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said the province would review the findings closely over the next few days.

"As a funding partner, provincial taxpayers deserve accountability for their money," wrote Mulroney. "We will continue making sure that Ontario taxpayers and transit riders get the best value for their money possible."

Both the PCs and the previous Liberal government invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the design and construction of both stages of the LRT network, as did the federal government.

Watson, who oversaw the line's September 2019 opening and was accused of lying under oath and hiding information when he testified at the inquiry this summer, is currently on a "long-planned personal holiday" and will read the report when he returns, a former staffer told CBC.

Following the first meeting of the new city council term Wednesday morning, newly elected Mayor Sutcliffe said he also had not yet seen the report.

He later addressed the media Wednesday afternoon, saying he'd directed city staff to come up with a plan to implement some of the report's "key" recommendations.

Sutcliffe also vowed to improve transparency with city council and the finance and economic development committee when it came to providing updates on the Confederation Line's performance.

"I came into this job with fresh eyes and an open mind on how best to get the LRT system back on track," said Sutcliffe, who was elected mayor in October after Watson chose not to run.