Province to launch public inquiry into Ottawa LRT network

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Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said in a statement Wednesday evening the goal is to get a public inquiry up and running as soon as possible.  (Nicholas Cleroux/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said in a statement Wednesday evening the goal is to get a public inquiry up and running as soon as possible. (Nicholas Cleroux/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The Ontario government has announced it will launch a public inquiry into Ottawa's problem-plagued light rail network.

Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney issued a statement Wednesday evening saying the issues plaguing Stage 1 of the LRT network have been "unacceptable and disappointing."

"As a funding partner for the project, we need certainty that the City of Ottawa will be able to successfully deliver the remaining phases of work for this project. Ottawa transit riders deserve and expect this certainty as well," Mulroney's statement said.

"To get to the bottom of these issues facing the Ottawa LRT, our government will be launching a public inquiry. Our goal is to get this up and running as soon as possible."

The Confederation Line only recently returned to partial service after being shut down for nearly two months because a train derailed Sept. 19 near Tremblay station.

Ottawa city council had previously voted 13-10 against a motion by Coun. Catherine McKenney for a judicial inquiry, settling instead on an investigation by the city's auditor general.

Mayor Jim Watson was among those who opposed McKenney's motion.

Speaking shortly after Wednesday's announcement, McKenney said the Progressive Conservative government's decision speaks to the "lack of transparency" at city hall.

McKenney cited a CBC investigation published today that found officials knew there were reliability and maintenance issues with the $2.1-billion network in the weeks before taking possession.

"We need to understand what went wrong. So that includes the procurement process. That includes the contract. That includes the launch. That includes everything up until today, really," McKenney said.

Watson's office initially said he would not comment as he hadn't "received any communication from the province" about the inquiry.

But later Wednesday evening, the mayor issued a statement saying he supported the government's decision and that both he and Premier Doug Ford "share the goal of better public transit for the residents of Ottawa."

Watson said his "number one goal" over the past year has been to have Rideau Transit Group (RTG), the consortium that built the $2.1-billion line, and train manufacturer Alstom get the line in working order.

"I support the province's decision to get to the bottom of why RTG and Alstom have failed to deliver on their obligations to our city," his statement said.

'Get the LRT we deserve'

While the recent derailment caused the most significant shutdown of the LRT network since its September 2019 launch, there have been a myriad of other problems, from jammed train doors and faulty power lines to broken axles and cracked train wheels.

"I think this shows people in our city that raising your voice and making a sound case for a change makes a difference," said Ottawa Centre NDP MPP Joel Harden, who has been raising issues about LRT with Mulroney at Queen's Park.

"We still don't know the terms about this inquiry. But it is an inquiry. It's not going to be filtered through the mayor's office. This is hopefully going to be something where we can really get to the bottom of this so that we get the LRT we deserve."

The scope of the provincial inquiry would be established in the coming weeks, Mulroney said in her statement.

It would culminate in a "report on what has transpired and recommendations to prevent this from happening again," she said.

Coun. Diane Deans, a staunch supporter of an inquiry who had her microphone was cut off last month during a heated LRT debate, lauded the province for doing what city council wouldn't.

"Council had the opportunity to do the right thing, to get to the bottom of what went wrong here, to take the veil of secrecy off this project and to provide clear and unequivocal answers to the project," she said.

"I know [the mayor] did not want to do a judicial inquiry. But the public wanted that. And I'm really happy that the province has taken that decision away from the mayor and his supporters."

Coun. Allan Hubley, chair of the city's transit commission, said in a statement he was "thankful" the province had offered to "review the system and help find solutions so we can deliver the safe reliable transit our ridership deserves."

Like Watson, Hubley had voted against McKenney's motion for a judicial inquiry.

Andrew Lee/CBC
Andrew Lee/CBC

The previous Liberal government committed $600 million for Stage 1 of Ottawa's LRT, while the Progressive Conservatives have earmarked just over $1.2 billion for the under-construction Stage 2.

Following September's derailment, officials said they could withhold $60 million in funding if the city did not offer assurances that provincial money was being spent on making the network safe and ensuring it met industry standards.

Wednesday's announcement was not a complete surprise: just hours after council voted down the inquiry last week, the province signalled it would be willing to call one itself.

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