Ottawa·Analysis

With 2 years to go, city has blown through 90 per cent of LRT contingency fund

The city has already spent or earmarked almost 90 per cent of its $100-million contingency fund for Phase 1 of the LRT, even though there are two more years to go before the project is completed. Adding cycling tracks to Booth Street bridge after it was built is the kind of issue adding to the extra costs.

Adding cycling tracks to Booth Street Bridge after Sept. 2017 opening just one example

The City of Ottawa has a balance of $11 million left in its LRT contingency fund, barely one-tenth the original amount — despite the fact the Confederation line isn't expected to open until mid-2018. (City of Ottawa)

When the new Booth Street bridge connecting Albert Street and the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway opens on Sunday, Sept. 4, it will not include bike lanes — despite the fact that everyone, including Mayor Jim Watson, has acknowledged that omitting some sort of segregated cycling infrastructure was an error. 

But by the time the issue came to a head, the Booth bridge was virtually finished. And so come Labour Day weekend, the bridge will be opened as designed and the city will go back to tear some of that work up and add safe-cycling measures by the end of 2018.

Coun. Catherine McKenney calls the failure to include segregated cycling infrastructure as part of the original design for the Booth Street Bridge a "lost opportunity in terms of time and money." (CBC)

The changes will cost up to $2 million.

"There are ways of making this bridge safe for both pedestrians and cyclists, and it will [now] be more costly," said Coun. Catherine McKenney, who represents the area. "It really is a lost opportunity in terms of time and money."

The federal government announced it will pick up the tab for half the cost of the work, but the other $1 million will come from the light rail project's contingency fund. As funding for the bridge was included in the $2.1-billion budget for the Confederation Line, it follows that the extra costs for changes to the plan will come out of the contingency fund.

It will be far from the first contract change that's been paid for from the $100-million pot of cash for unforeseen circumstances.

In fact, the city has already spent or earmarked almost 90 per cent of that fund for Phase 1 of the LRT, even though there are two more years to go before the project is completed.

This leaves a balance of $11 million to cover other unforeseen costs.- Steve Cripps, director of rail implementation

The official groundbreaking ceremony for the tunnel was held in October 2013, and the project is supposed to be completed sometime in mid-2018. That means that although the city is less than two-thirds of the way through the LRT construction period, it has spent the bulk of its emergency fund.

"To date, of the $100 million in the contingency fund, the Contingency Management Committee (CMC) has reserved $89 million for contract variations and possible future changes, primarily related to property requirements and transit priorities," according to an email sent from the city communications department and attributed to Steve Cripps, the director of rail implementation.

"This leaves a balance of $11 million to cover other unforeseen costs."

$15M spent last year alone

In 2012, council approved the $2.1-billion budget for light rail, which included the contingency fund, a normal part of a huge project such as the LRT.

According the rail office, the $89 million has been spent on the following:

  • $32 million on acquiring property
  • $19 million on extra costs associated with integrating the three downtown stations into existing buildings
  • $14 million on road work on the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, Innes Road and Preston Street
  • $1.1 million on soil remediation
  • $23 million on contract changes

At about this time last year, $74 million of the fund was already accounted for. That means the city has spent $15 million in just the last year, which raises questions about whether the contingency fund will run out before the LRT project is completed.

For example, it's not yet known whether the city will bear any financial responsibility for the Rideau Street sinkhole. (It's worth noting that Rideau Transit Group, the consortium building light rail, picked up all the costs for an earlier LRT-related sinkhole on Waller Street.)

Costs part of poor planning

Part of the cost overruns are due to the $23-million worth of contract changes the city has asked for, like adding washrooms to Bayview and Hurdman stations. The original contract — which the public and councillors had only one week to review — called for no public washrooms during Phase 1 of the Confederation Line.

But after a sustained campaign from activist group Gotta Go!, council bowed to public pressure to build the two washrooms at an extra cost of $2 million, plus an additional $13,000 per month in maintenance costs.

There is $11 million remaining in the city's original $100 million LRT contingency fund, according to a City of Ottawa email ascribed to Steve Cripps, the director of rail implemention. (CBC)

The Booth Street Bridge is another example of poor foresight when it comes to designing parts of the light-rail system.

At some point, the design included cycling lanes, but those plans were nixed. The current plan is to include "wider outside lanes to be shared with cyclists," according to an email sent from the city and attributed to Vivi Chi, manager for transportation planning.

Sharing a busy road with vehicles is considered to be less safe than a segregated lane, however. As well, the driving lanes on the new bridge will be quite wide, which can encourage cars to travel at higher speeds.

When McKenney found out there were no segregated cycling lanes, she was furious. So was the bicycle-riding public.

"We have received a lot of feedback on the need to have something better than sharrows on Booth Street, and staff have been tasked with finding a solution to enhance the cycling environment in this area," said the email attributed to Chi.

"This review is just getting underway and will be carried out in collaboration with the cycling community."

Access to the contingency fund comes through senior management: the city manager, treasurer, and deputy city manager must all give their approval. Councillors often have no idea when the fund has been drawn upon.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

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