Edmonton

Metro LRT delays: City manager Simon Farbrother takes 'full accountability'

Edmonton's city manager says he takes “full accountability” for the glacial progress on building the Metro LRT line, but says it wasn't worth informing council of every problem with the beleaguered line.

Council grills city manager on delays, criticizes reporting issues

City manager Simon Farbrother says the city regularly reviews its major projects, but doesn't know why it didn't happen in this case. (CBC)

Edmonton's city manager was the centre of attention Monday morning, when he faced hard questions from councillors over the problem-plagued Metro LRT line.

"I'll take full accountability that this project is …  still not on time," Simon Farbrother told council.

I do expect him to have oversight over a half-a-billion dollar project.- Coun. Mike Nickel

The meeting marked the first time that councillors have been publicly able to question Farbrother about the LRT project, which is more than 16 months behind schedule and has yet to open to passengers.

A report released last week by the city's auditor found the project has been rife with problems and concluded that poor communication and mismanagement have contributed to the delays.

During the sometimes hostile meeting, councillors expressed frustration that they were not told earlier about problems with the LRT line, saying there should have been better reporting.

Coun. Mike Nickel, in particular, was upset that when problems were identified, they were communicated verbally — leaving no record of who knew what, and when they knew it.

"Why were you not aware of a $668-million project and the problems therein?" he asked Farbrother at one point.

While Farbrother admitted to problems with the project, he argued that updating council on every snag would have been a waste of time.

"We don't tell council about every problem because often they get fixed," he said.

That time would be better spent solving the problems, he said.

Also in the hotseat was Dorian Wandzura, the general manager of the transportation department. Wandzura, who took over the department in 2013, called the timeline for the project "overly aggressive."

He admitted that many people who worked on the project were "unclear" about what their responsibilities were.

Wandzura said some staff members who made mistakes on the project are still with the department, but said they are dedicated to getting the line working.

He promised councillors a system-wide review to address the problems listed in the report and vowed to do a better job of reporting issues to council.

"If you think you need a review to find how to improve, your department is worse than I thought," Coun. Tony Caterina responded.

Better oversight needed, councillor says

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Nickel stopped short of calling for Farbrother to lose his job, but implied his dismissal should be on the table as an option.

"I do think we have something to discuss," he said.

He said the Metro line's $668-million dollar price tag means the city manager should have been more diligent in keeping council informed about problems. Nickel said councillors rely on the Farbrother to manage city employees.

"I'm not here to tell him how to fill a pothole, I'm not here to tell him how to fix a street. But I do expect him to have oversight over a half-a-billion dollar project," he said.

Nickel said he has lost confidence in senior management to oversee large infrastructure projects.

For his part, Farbrother didn't directly comment on his future with the city.

"That's any councillor's prerogative to ask for what they want. That's the nature of the world we live in," he told reporters.

Farbrother said many of the delays were the fault of municipal administrators. But he insisted that Thales, the contractor that designed and installed the signalling system, deserved much of the blame.

He reiterated that the city keeps a close eye on projects to make sure they remain on track.

"I'm not sure why we missed this, but we did. And that's my accountability."

Edmonton plans to finally open the Metro LRT line on Sept. 6, albeit with reduced service.

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