Feds held back LRT Stage 2 money for months because of concerns

·3 min read
Two derailments last year, including this one that occured on Sept. 19, 2021, led to concerns among federal officials about the LRT. The federal government temporarily delayed a payment to the city for LRT Stage 2. (Nicholas Cleroux/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Two derailments last year, including this one that occured on Sept. 19, 2021, led to concerns among federal officials about the LRT. The federal government temporarily delayed a payment to the city for LRT Stage 2. (Nicholas Cleroux/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The federal government was so worried about issues concerning Ottawa's Confederation Line earlier this year that it temporarily held back funding payments to the city for the light rail system's Stage 2 expansion.

Infrastructure Canada "has delayed reimbursing Stage 2 claims submitted since the derailments and launch of the public inquiry in order to assess payment implications, including potential public sensitivity," according to a ministerial briefing note completed on March 23.

The government ultimately decided to pay the city's quarterly claim for the massive light rail extension and the city has told CBC the federal government has transferred all $576 million due so far for Stage 2.

But documents spanning from November 2021 to March 2022, obtained under access to information laws by researcher Ken Rubin, paint a picture of concern about the LRT among federal officials.

No wonder.

The 12.5-kilometre east-west light rail system that opened in 2019 derailed twice last year, shutting down the service for weeks.

That prompted two Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigations and led the province to impose new conditions on the city last November before it released the final $60 million in funding for the massive project.

Ontario Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney followed that up by calling a public inquiry into the Confederation Line, which is ongoing and awaiting its final report.

The transportation ministry said it won't comment on payments until the inquiry concludes.

Matt Vis/CBC
Matt Vis/CBC

Feds looked at 4 'risks'

Officials at Infrastructure Canada, who oversee the $1.1 billion the federal government pledged to LRT Stage 2, drafted a list last November of four potential "risks" to the extension project. They were:

  • Public sensitivity: The government was concerned about the public's "openly voiced frustration with the system," noting that the LRT had "garnered significant negative media attention."

By March 2022, officials appeared satisfied that "none of these linkages provide grounds for federal funds to be withheld for Stage 2 claims" but added that "future payments will be subject to ongoing monitoring."

They also wrote they believed the city had taken the appropriate measures, including by hiring external consultants TRA Associates, to get the system back on track.

WATCH | Video of September's derailed train:

'Public sensitivity' highest risk

Among the government's biggest concerns appeared to be the optics of the federal government continuing to pay the city for Stage 2 when there were so many big questions around Stage 1.

"There is potential for negative public reaction should it become publicized that Stage 2 payments are being made in the current context," the documents said.

The March briefing notes pointed out that the Stage 2 project is "notably delayed" and that even though the two stages of the LRT are distinct projects, that "is not so clear to the general public."

City still out $120M on LRT Stage 1

While LRT Stage 2 payments from the upper levels of government appear on track, the city is still waiting for the last $120 million for Stage 1.

CBC
CBC

The provincial and federal governments each pledged $600 million to the first stage. Because of the way the funding was devised, the federal contributions cannot exceed those of the province.

That means if the province is holding back its last $60 million, then the federal government has to do the same.

However, according to the released documents, Infrastructure Canada supported the letter form the province as it "ensures that neither the remaining federal nor provincial funds for Stage 1 will flow until outstanding issues are addressed."

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