Ottawa·Analysis

Why the latest delay makes LRT an Ottawa election issue

Voters may question why councillors didn't know earlier that the $2-billion light rail system is delayed for the second time this year.

Voters should question why council didn't know earlier

The city isn't quite ready for rail, it seems. The announcement that RTG would miss its Nov. 2 deadline surprised a number of councillors. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Thinking back to the quasi-disaster known as the Rideau sinkhole, no one is that surprised by Monday's news that Rideau Transit Group (RTG) will miss its Nov. 2 deadline to deliver the Confederation Line to the city.

What people will question is why council didn't know earlier that RTG would miss a deadline that's now less than two months away.

That suddenly makes the LRT an election issue.

"I'm both angry and disappointed," said Coun. Jeff Leiper, who said he was so unprepared for the revelation that he only learned what was happening from reports on Twitter. 

"I'm knocking on doors and residents are asking me, 'Do you think the LRT is going to open on time?'" said Leiper, who is running for re-election in Kitchissippi ward against a single candidate, Daniel Stringer.

"And I've been saying, 'I think they would have told us by now if it wasn't going to.'"

But they didn't.

Over the years, councillors have accepted staff updates without demanding to see much evidence that the project was on track.

In fact, it wasn't until February when the first delay was announced that councillors began receiving monthly updates at finance committee meetings.

Even then, only OC Transpo boss John Manconi has been on deck to answer questions.

He never promised that the LRT would be ready on time, only that RTG said it would be.

Is that sort of answer accountability, or passing the buck on responsibility?

Mayor Jim Watson said he's disappointed the LRT won't be ready by Nov. 2, but wants the system to be safe. (CBC)

If Manconi couldn't speak on behalf of RTG, perhaps RTG could speak for itself.

But the fact is that officials from the consortium are rarely made available to members of council or the media.

That's because the mayor and the previous council voted for a contract that gives the city sole responsibility for communicating with the public on the massive project.

RTG has not responded to CBC's requests to speak about this delay. And so far, no councillor has publicly demanded the consortium do so.

Some suspicions

Maybe councillors don't want to be chided by the mayor for grandstanding — he likes everyone to get along.

But there's a difference between showboating and insisting on clearer answers.

Coun. Diane Deans stands out for consistently questioning whether the rail project was on track, which has earned her a few bragging rights during this election season.

"I share the disappointment of people around the table but maybe I don't necessarily share the surprise," Deans said Monday.

"In fact, I've been telling my constituents this on the doorstep — that although I'm hopeful, I'm doubtful that we're going to meet that date."

Coun. Diane Deans is one of the few councillors to publicly express skepticism that the LRT would be ready on time. (CBC)

Other councillors who have privately suspected they weren't getting the whole truth must surely be wishing now they had voiced their suspicions sooner.

Coun. Stephen Blais will likely have a few things to say in the future.

Usually well-spoken, he was so angry he could hardly complete a full sentence when he started to ask questions at Monday's meeting.

As the chair of the transit commission, Blais said he was given the briefest of briefings on Friday morning that RTG would not make its Nov. 2 deadline, but given few of the details revealed Monday.

He didn't hear a thing about a letter RTG sent to the city on Friday evening outlining a proposed new work schedule to be completed by Nov. 30.

The city's legal department has so far refused to release this letter about the publicly funded LRT.

The timeline

There's so much about this delay that raises questions of process, transparency and public trust.

Consider that an official LRT update to councillors dated Aug. 13 indicated no major concerns with the project, or as Blais put it, "there wasn't any red flag or big oh-my-Gods in the memo. "

And yet, Manconi said that only four days later his team, including independent experts, saw indications that made them doubt the project was on time.

Watson was told of the concerns on Aug. 20, then had a meeting with RTG and the third-party assessment team on Aug. 29.

Last Tuesday — Sept. 5 — RTG told the city that it could only meet the Nov. 2 deadline by not quite fulfilling some contract requirements, like running 12 days of full-schedule testing.

Or completing all 34 trains.

Or opening all the Rideau Station entrances.

So three weeks after alarm bells went off for city officials, councillors finally got an inkling about what was happening.

During that period — when some officials must have known the project was going to be delayed for months — OC Transpo went ahead with unpopular changes to two dozen bus routes meant to pave the way for light rail.

Councillors and candidates are now calling for those route changes to be reversed.

Will voters believe new dates?

Watson insists that this delay will not affect the planned $3 billion second phase of LRT.

That contract is supposed to be signed at the end of year, before the first phase is up and running.

I don't think that residents are going to trust any date that is given to us.- Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper

Will residents feel comfortable with that plan, or will mayoral challenger Clive Doucet's proposal to let light rail run for a few months before pressing on to the next stage start to seem like sage advice? 

There is currently no new deadline for the LRT, although Manconi expects the system will be running sometime in the first quarter of 2019.

But will anyone have any confidence in Deadline Number Three?

"At this point, I don't think that residents are going to trust any date that is given to us," admitted Leiper.

"I know I am going to be looking at any date that crosses my desk with cynicism as well."

That's why the LRT is an election issue.

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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