Through good and bad, John Manconi has stood by OC Transpo — but the ride's about to end

Born and raised in Ottawa, John Manconi has spent his entire 32-year professional career with the municipality. He's about to retire — but not before one last heated transit commission meeting, sparked by two train derailments since the beginning of August.

With retirement looming, Ottawa's transit head reflects on 32 years with the city

Ahead of retirement, head of OC Transpo talks about Ottawa’s transit future

1 year ago
Duration 3:00
John Manconi, general manager of OC Transpo, reflects on a 32-year career in transportation and talks about where he hopes the city is headed from here.

Today's transit commission meeting was already shaping up to be a testy one.

Six weeks ago, an LRT train derailed at Tunney's Pasture station due to an axle bearing problem. The Confederation Line shut down for an entire work week, and more than a quarter of OC Transpo's fleet of 39 light rail vehicles ended up needing repairs.

So when John Manconi takes the virtual stage Monday morning at his last transit commission meeting — and one of the final public appearances in his 30-year career at the city — he's already expecting to be in the hot seat.

And then, less than 24 hours before Monday's meeting, another train derailed just west of Tremblay station. No one was hurt, thankfully, but the pictures of a rail car off the tracks, smashing through a fence and hitting a switch box, are shocking.

It can't be the note on which Manconi wanted to depart.

Three-decade career

Manconi is one of a dying breed.

Born and raised in Ottawa, he's spent his entire 32-year professional career with the municipality, starting in 1989 inspecting backyard drainage systems in the pre-amalgamation city of Nepean.

Even in that junior job, Manconi says he picked up skills on "creating win-win environments" and dealing with parties in conflict.

"Because where there's a drainage dispute between two neighbours, it can get very ugly," he said in an interview last week, before the most recent derailment.

Manconi rose through the ranks over three decades, overseeing road maintenance and snow removal. In 2007, he was named the general manager of public works, where he was successful and well-liked. In 2012, the year council finally decided to move ahead with LRT, he became head of OC Transpo.

John Manconi speaks to reporters in 2014, long before he would become the public face of the city's LRT network and its many missteps. (CBC)

Face of LRT problems

When a bureaucrat becomes a household name, it's almost never for good reason.

Manconi managed to sail along for a few years without too much controversy as OC Transpo boss. He even emerged generally unscathed from the Rideau Street sinkhole incident where, miraculously, no one was hurt and most people blamed LRT contractor Rideau Transit Group for tunneling under the road.

But in mid-2017, as it was becoming clear that the LRT wouldn't meet its contractual due date of May 2018 — it would end up being 465 days late — Manconi started to come under pressure, even though the line was being built by a private consortium. 

The LRT contract gave all communications power about the project to the city, presumably so it could control the messaging. But it also made Manconi the face of both the delays and a seemingly endless list of problems that cropped up after it opened in September 2019.

People have called for his resignation — including a citizen transit commissioner. He's been verbally abused when he's been out with his kids.

Asked if he thought it was fair to have been the bearer of repeatedly bad news, Manconi said it goes with the job. 

"I'm pretty recognizable wherever I go," said Manconi, who's well over six feet.

It's with whoever sits in this chair. And you need to be prepared to do that."- John Manconi on accountability

He says can take it, but wonders how many others are willing to put up with the constant criticism and pressure.

"The phone never stops ringing," he said. "I don't think everybody wants that lifestyle because it can be hard on you."

Still, Manconi says, "you can't contract out accountability."

Rideau Transit may have built the Confederation Line, and its maintenance arm is supposed to keep the line in good shape for the next 30 years, but the OC Transpo brand belongs to the city.

"The responsibility and the accountability to the customers, the taxpayers, council, the media, is not with a private consortium," he said.

"It's with whoever sits in this chair. And you need to be prepared to do that."

John Manconi addresses reporters on Sept. 16, 2019, at Blair Station after the first weekday commute on the Confederation LRT line. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

On accountability

Many people don't directly blame the city for the LRT being late, or even breaking down. But they do blame them — and Manconi as the head of OC Transpo — for not being more upfront about what was happening and not overseeing RTG's work.

Take September 2018. Councillors running for re-election that fall had been telling their constituents over the summer that the LRT would be launching in November. An August memo from OC Transpo updating the project raised no red flags.

In fact, bus drivers were issued pink slips, buses were taken off the road, routes were redirected, all with the understanding that the LRT was opening imminently.

So imagine the outrage from both councillors and the public when they learned LRT wouldn't be opening until the following year.

There was one big question on everyone's mind: how could the city not know the Confederation Line wouldn't be ready? 

We still don't have an answer to that, and it's not clear that the fault lies solely with Manconi. But the fact the city, to this day, still appears to be caught unaware when it comes to issues with the train is a serious problem.

Asked how the city can have better oversight with these sorts of undertakings, Manconi said that "this obsession with when's it opening has to stop." Most people "can't even predict when their kitchen renovations are going to get done," he said, let alone a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project.

Perhaps. But there are still dates written into those contracts, and the public should be told when those deadlines won't be met. 

OC Transpo general manager John Manconi speaks at a transit commission meeting at Ottawa city hall Dec. 18, 2019. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Taking the long view

Asked if it was disappointing to be leaving a long career with the city on a down note, Manconi — whose last day is Sept. 30 — said that until the August derailment, the Confederation Line had been working well for the last year.

Anyway, these days, he's taking the long view.

Sitting in the concourse at Pimisi station, Manconi said he's proud of the natural space, public art and involvement of the local Indigenous community there — a first for the city.

He points out that the new central library will be close by, and maybe even one day, an NHL hockey arena. 

The Leitrim station being built as part of the Trillium Line extension is located in an open field, Manconi added, but in a few years it will be "surrounded by houses and a community, and those people are going to be using transit forever."

That's city building. It's messy and there are some pretty big bumps along the way. And Manconi insists that if people just give it time, the Confederation Line will hold up to comparisons with transit networks in places like Toronto, Boston and New York.

"You know, you have to have some glitches, but it's a phenomenal system," said Manconi. "And in a few years, people [will] look back and say, 'Thank goodness we did that.'"