Mayor Sutcliffe pledges accountability in wake of scathing LRT inquiry report
664-page report 'accurately' portrayed Confederation Line's woes, Ottawa mayor says
Ottawa's new mayor has vowed to improve accountability and transparency around the city's light rail network and implement "key recommendations" from a scathing report issued Wednesday by the LRT inquiry.
At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said the 664-page report issued a few hours earlier by the Ottawa Light Rail Transit Public Inquiry appeared to "accurately portray" the tumultuous run-up and launch of the city's $2.1-billion Confederation Line.
"I came into this job with fresh eyes and an open mind on how best to get the LRT system back on track," said Sutcliffe, who was elected mayor in October, a few months after the public inquiry wrapped up.
"I understand the frustration and disappointment of so many Ottawa residents that I have met and heard from over the last few months. And frankly, I share their disappointment."
According to the report, the City of Ottawa and Confederation line builder Rideau Transit Group (RTG) lost sight of the public interest in their race to finish the LRT, which was more than 15 months late when it came online in September 2019.
Both sides made "egregious" errors during the construction and testing of the $2.1-billion line, wrote inquiry commissioner Justice William Hourigan. The errors were so massive, Hourigan concluded, that it raises questions about the city's fitness to oversee such a grand infrastructure project in the future.
'Many issues to resolve'
Sutcliffe said he'd already directed city staff to forge a plan to implement some of the report's 103 recommendations that would lead to "consistent, reliable service" on the line, which has been plagued with problems since its launch.
He pledged to deliver "regular reporting" about construction and maintenance on the line to both council and the finance and economic development committee.
That would include "timely updates" on system performance, testing and changes to safety and reliability criteria, Sutcliffe said. All of those would be subject to review by city council, he said.
There would also be increased monitoring and oversight by "independent" agencies to ensure LRT remains safe, Sutcliffe told reporters.
"Let's be clear: as Justice Hourigan indicated, there are still many issues to resolve," he said. "All of the recommendations in this report could be adopted, and that still would not guarantee perfect performance of Stage 1, nor will it ensure Stage 2 will be implemented without any challenges."
Intention to 'collaborate'
Hourigan's report came down hard on both former city manager Steve Kanellakos and former mayor Jim Watson, criticizing them for holding back information from the rest of council about the final testing phase of the Confederation Line.
During that testing period, the criteria for LRT to pass was lowered — but the rest of council was never told about it.
The inquiry heard that top city officials, Watson included, discussed the particulars of the 12-day trial run over a private WhatsApp chat group, a practice Sutcliffe said he had "no intention" of replicating.
"My intention is to collaborate with city council and not withhold information from them," he said.
When asked if the report necessitated some sort of inquiry into the massive Stage 2 expansion of Ottawa's rail network, Sutcliffe only said that he supported "[moving] forward with the recommendations" from the current report.
The report's release marks a "difficult day" for Ottawa residents, said Orléans South-Navan Coun. Catherine Kitts.
Kitts, who won a byelection in October 2020, said she understood the frustrations of regular citizens as she was an unelected transit rider herself when LRT came online.
While it was a surprise to learn there was a "deliberate effort" to withhold LRT information from council, Kitts said she believed Sutcliffe when he pledged to improve transparency.
She also was buoyed by the fact the inquiry's report dropped just as a new term of council is kicking off.
"I'm grateful that we have a lot of new councillors, we have a new mayor, we have a new GM of OC Transpo, a new [acting] city manager," Kitts said. "So I think that we can and we will turn the page, because our transit system is essential to the healthy growth of our city."
In a blog post, Kitchisippi Coun. Jeff Leiper said that while the findings left him "angry," he would hold off on sharing detailed thoughts until talking more with his council colleagues.
"Residents have been clear that they want answers," wrote Leiper, whose ward includes the current western terminus of the Confederation Line.
"And now they have pages of them."
With files from Joanne Chianello and Joseph Tunney