Ottawa

Mayor, auditor unconcerned by SNC's Trillium Line contract

Ottawa's mayor says he has faith the procurement process for the Stage 2 of light rail was done properly and fairly, even though documents show technical evaluators saw major weaknesses in SNC-Lavalin's bid for the Trillium Line extension.

Auditor first saw damning technical scoring 11 months ago

The guideway for the Trillium Line tracks is being laid down on Bowesville Road near Riverside South. The procurement process for the Trillium Line has come under increased scrutiny. (City of Ottawa)

Ottawa's mayor says he has faith the procurement process for Stage 2 of light rail was done properly and fairly, even though documents show technical evaluators saw major weaknesses in SNC-Lavalin's bid for the Trillium Line extension.

Presentations released to council members and the media last Friday provide details about why an evaluation committee scored the engineering firm below the 70 per cent threshold in two technical evaluations, something CBC News first reported last March.

If the auditor-general or the fairness commissioner had a problem with it, then I would have a problem with it​​​.- Mayor Jim Watson

On Oct. 3, 2018, the evaluators stated SNC-Lavalin's bid, under the name TransitNEXT, failed to include a signalling and train control system, had no plan for snow removal and, at one point, appeared to believe the trains that run on the Trillium Line were electric, not diesel.

Asked Monday if he saw any problem with the contents of those presentations, Mayor Jim Watson said no one around the council table has "expertise to dive into a procurement process" so it was reviewed by others.

"If the auditor-general or the fairness commissioner had a problem with it, then I would have a problem with it," said Watson on Monday. "But I have to rely on their sound judgment and good research that they signed off on it."

Auditor saw scorecards last winter

The city employed a fairness commissioner, Oliver Grant of P3 Advisors, to attend meetings with the bidders, review scoring procedures, and ensure evaluators had no conflicts of interest.

The city's auditor-general, meanwhile, said he first saw the technical bid presentations nearly 11 months ago, just before council voted to approve the $4.7 billion in contracts to extend the Trillium and Confederation lines during a tense meeting on March 6, 2019.

"When I read the concerns that were expressed by the members of the technical evaluation team, I absolutely was concerned," said Ken Hughes. "We know what the climate is here. We know what is expected of the transportation system."

He pulled his audit team from other work to focus on going through documentation and interviewing key players in the days leading up to the March 6 council vote.

Ken Hughes, Ottawa's auditor general, says once technical evaluators had their issues addressed, he had no issues with the way the bid was handled. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

"My concern at that time was that a bid that hadn't scored 70 twice, let alone once, was carried through the process," said Hughes.

But it soon "became very obvious" to him the request for proposals had a discretionary clause that allowed city executives to wave a bid through even if it didn't meet the minimum score.

Despite the poor technical score, SNC-Lavalin's proposal came out on top because it was much cheaper than its two competitors.

'Not a model procurement'

After the contract vote and CBC's report that SNC-Lavalin failed to meet the technical score, there were calls for Hughes to do a full investigation.

Hughes presented his findings last November, concluding the request-for-proposal process for Stage 2 LRT had been delegated to city staff and "followed to the letter."

Hughes explains that despite being concerned the city risked tying itself to a rail builder that couldn't follow through, his findings came down to a change in tone by the technical evaluation team members.

After the poor evaluations, evaluators had a chance to sit down with the people behind SNC-Lavalin's bid and each one told auditors during interviews that their technical issues had been resolved, according to Hughes.

"If the members of the technical evaluation team, after twice scoring them less than 70, are able to have their concerns appropriately addressed, then if they have no concerns, then I have no concerns," said Hughes.

"Was this a model procurement? No it wasn't," Hughes continued.

His audit report recommended future requests for proposals be made public and that technical evaluators have more expertise in public-private partnerships.

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