Ottawa

Political pressure led to LRT timeline being shortened, inquiry hears

The first day of the four-week public inquiry into the Confederation Line's problems asked many of the hot-button questions the public has asked for years.

Budget, timeline, 12-day testing among topics in 1st day of public inquiry

Justice William Hourigan takes his seat before the start of the first day of proceedings at the inquiry into Ottawa's troubled LRT system June 13, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The move to try to speed up the completion of the Confederation Line by a year came from political pressure and not advice from project experts, the public inquiry into Ottawa's light rail line heard Monday.

The first day of the public inquiry into the LRT's problems asked many of the hot-button questions the public has asked for years: Was the budget too tight? Was the timeline too short? What happened with the 12 consecutive-day trial test? Was Alstom Citadis Spirit the appropriate train? 

These questions, and more, will be the focus of detailed examination over the next 17 days of testimony and cross-examination. 

The Progressive Conservative cabinet decided last fall to investigate the troubled Confederation Line after Ottawa's city council voted against holding a judicial inquiry.

It appointed Ontario appeal court Justice William Hourigan as the commissioner, who has a mandate to look at all commercial and technical issues that may have led to the two derailments that occurred last summer. 

The commission started Monday by looking back more than a decade, examining the circumstances and events in the months that led to Rideau Transit Group (RTG) — a consortium of SNC-Lavalin, ACS Infrastructure and Ellis Don — winning the contract for the project in December 2012.

Budget and timeline constraints?

The first witness under the spotlight was John Jensen, the city's former director of rail implementation, who was grilled by the commission's co-lead counsel John Adair about whether the budget and timeline for the project was too constrained.

The $2.1-billion price tag was set in 2009 dollars and before more detailed design and preliminary engineering work had taken place.

"Setting the budget that early puts you at risk that you are sort of tethering yourself to a particular number at a time when you don't necessarily have all of the information you need," Adair said to Jensen. 

John Adair is co-lead counsel on the commission conducting a public inquiry into Ottawa's light rail system. He grilled the city's former rail director John Jensen on, among other things, political pressure to shorten the LRT project timeline. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Adair pointed out that Mayor Jim Watson ran for office in 2010 promising that the proposed LRT project would only go ahead if it could be kept within its $2.1-billion budget.

The commission lawyer asked Jensen if he recalled council directing staff to go ahead with the preliminary engineering work on the basis the project would be "designed to budget."

Jensen said he didn't recall any specific council directive, only that city staff and its experts manage the budget to deliver "the best value for the lowest cost." However, Adair then produced two documents written by Jensen in March 2011 where he referred to designing the system specifically to the $2.1-billion budget.

The former rail director insisted the $2.1-billion figure was a "target" and "not a hard line." 

Mayor wanted LRT finished faster

Adair also challenged Jensen on the reduced timeline for the project. The 12.5-km east-west LRT line was originally supposed to be completed by 2019.

But in March 2011, the mayor-led finance and economic development committee pressed staff to finish the LRT sooner.

According to a staff report from May 2011, Watson also engaged the rail office directly "to ensure that every opportunity to advance the project more quickly is fully explored."

WATCH | Mayor 'not happy' with LRT performance 6 weeks after opening: 

'We're not happy with it'

3 years ago
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Mayor Jim Watson has announced several immediate fixes for Ottawa's transit system, including $3.5 million to get 40 more buses on the road.

City staff told council it could shorten the timeline by a year, cutting six months off each of the procurement and construction schedules, and that it was possible some of the system could be finished in time for a ceremonial opening or otherwise be part of Canada's 150th birthday celebrations in 2017.

Adair asked Jensen a few times whether the motivation to finish the LRT faster came from politicians and not experts.

Jensen didn't answer directly, and said that part of the scheduling analysis was to "create an environment where downtown was not too disrupted."

The commission lawyer restated what he wanted to know: "The desire to accelerate the question schedule to that degree, or at all as the case may be, was not coming from experts who you were paying to advise you, it was coming from the mayor and council."

"It was not coming from the experts," Jensen said.

Then Hourigan himself intervened and told Jensen to answer the question. So Adair asked one more time to confirm that the July 2017 target for completing downtown work was coming from the mayor and council.

"That's correct," said Jensen.

The Confederation Line was ultimately handed over to the city at the end of August 2019, more than 16 months later than the contract deadline.

What ended up happening in 2017 as a LRT demonstration was a multimedia show in the future Lyon station. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

RTG witness says they couldn't get 15 trains to work

Later in the day, the former bid director for RTG Riccardo Cosentino told the commission the budget and schedule could have been met "if everything had materialized" the way the estimators had foreseen it.

Cosentino, who's been an executive with SNC-Lavalin since 2010, remains on the RTG board and has been receiving constant updates on the LRT's performance and issues with the city.

Commission lawyer Christine Mainville asked him for details about RTG's bid, including details on how the consortium originally wanted to use trains from Spanish company CAF — but the city deemed them non-compliant.

Christine Mainville, another of the three co-lead counsels on the commission, questionned SNC-Lavalin executive Riccardo Cosentino about the choice of the Alstom Citadis as the train for the Confederation Line and about the trial running before the LRT was handed over to the city. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada)

Cosentino said RTG and train company representatives tried to convince the city that the CAF vehicles met the city's specifications, or were close enough. But the city refused.

That meant that RTG had to ask Alstom to be its train provider at the last moment in summer 2012.

Alstom has already said in its opening statement posted online that no train maker in the world could have met the city's requirements. 

Cosentino also addressed the 12 consecutive-day trial test that was supposed to result in the city having 15 two-vehicle train sets available for service.

The SNC-Lavalin executive told the commission that it was difficult to get 15 trains to work based on the parameters agreed on with the city.

"So there was some difficulty achieving the metrics that had been set a bit earlier, and so the metrics were amended?" asked Mainville.

"That was my understanding and it's my understanding today," said Cosentino.

An Ottawa LRT train at Tunney's Pasture station Sept. 6, 2019, just over a week before the line opened to the public. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

The lawyer for Alstom, which is one of the parties allowed to cross-examine witnesses, said RTG and the city made a compromise in handing over the light rail system knowing there would be extra issues to work out once the line was up and running.

That's a problem for Alstom, argued its lawyer Michael Valo, because it's the train maker that is the main subcontractor for Rideau Transit Maintenance. 

"It's Alstom that's picking up the tab for the extra work and for the risk of deductions, would you agree?" Valo asked Cosentino, who agreed.

Rob Pattison of Infrastructure Ontario and former city treasurer Marian Simulik are scheduled to testify on Tuesday.

Hourigan's target for a post-inquiry report is the end of August, with a possible extension into November.

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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