Ottawa·Analysis

LRT is 377 days late and counting. Now what?

Here are five takeaways from this week's disappointing, if not shocking, news about the further delay of Ottawa's Confederation Line.

5 takeaways from RTG's latest missed deadline

The Alstom trains still have some glitches, Ottawa city councillors were told earlier this week. (City of Ottawa)

The only good thing that can be said for the latest Confederation Line delay is that it didn't shock anyone.

After all, Rideau Transit Group (RTG) has failed to deliver the $2.1-billion light rail system four times now. The LRT was originally due on May 24, 2018. It's now 377 days late — and counting. 

No really, we are literally counting.

So now what? Here are five takeaways from this week's disappointing, if not surprising, LRT news.

1. RTG doesn't know when it will finish

According to the contract, RTG was supposed to give the city a new completion date by May 31.

But the consortium asked for two more weeks to figure it out, according to the city's general manager of transportation, John Manconi.

Apparently, an extra 14 days will give RTG a better handle on how the train repairs were going. This strategy may be an improvement over RTG's past behaviour.

In early March, RTG CEO Peter Lauch told councillors the system would be ready by the end of the month — something he must have known then was not remotely possible. 

John Manconi, general manager of OC Transpo, says Rideau Transit Group will not be able to hand the LRT system over to the city by the end of June. 0:52

And last month, RTG told the city it was pretty much done the Confederation Line, even though there were dozens of outstanding issues, including brake valves that need replacing and doors that don't shut as tightly as they should. Oh, and sometimes the power cuts out, stranding the trains on the track.

While it's obvious why RTG wants the extra time, it's unclear why the city agreed to it.

RTG is a consortium of heavy hitters including SNC-Lavalin and ACS Infrastructure, companies that should be able to set a realistic completion date.

If they miss that next deadline, the city deducts $1 million from their payments to RTG — something that has happened twice already. That should be RTG's concern, not the city's.

2. The city had no Plan B for delay

It's neither the city's nor OC Transpo's fault that LRT is delayed. The blame for that lies squarely with RTG.

But it's not clear what the city's backup plan was for a lengthy delay, which — as city officials, including the mayor, have conceded — is not unusual for a project of this magnitude.

In September 2018, OC Transpo reduced service on some routes in anticipation of a light rail system that was supposed to be completed by November. We know how that turned out.

But most of the bus changes went ahead anyway.

Expect bus delays and cancellations to continue until LRT opens. (CBC)

It's true that bus schedules are complex beasts that are months in the making, but considering the disruption caused, why was there no contingency plan in case of a likely delay?

Those problematic route changes will have been in place for a year, or possibly more, before the LRT is open to the public.

Further, the city retains an independent assessment team that is supposed to assess the progress on the Confederation Line.

It's not clear why the city didn't have a better sense from this team, if not RTG, of the chance of a lengthy delay before it altered those bus routes.

3. Transit pain to worsen

OC Transpo riders have known for some time that their commutes were getting worse by the day. And this winter, Manconi publicly acknowledged that OC Transpo was "not a reliable system."

Expect that to continue, only worse.

There are record numbers of cancellations on some routes and congestion will increase because the LRT construction is overlapping with major construction projects, such as the Elgin Street upgrade, the Nicolas Street ramp and the Innes Road overpass at Highway 417.

Another segment of Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa closed April 1. The southern end of the Centretown entertainment strip is closed until December. (CBC)

There are currently 77 lanes of traffic closed in Ottawa — as opposed to 33 last year — as well as the Chaudière Bridge.

The city was going spend $5.1 million a year to expand 30 community bus routes, and another $7.8 million to buy 12 more buses.

But those improvements aren't coming until LRT is operating, and we don't know when that is.

4. Council to debate a fare rollback

Coun. Diane Deans said she is "done with defending" OC Transpo to residents. "It's indefensible to continue to charge full fare for sub-par system," she said Tuesday.

Deans wants to decrease fares temporarily by as much as 30 per cent, a gesture of goodwill to long-suffering OC Transpo riders.

"As a member of council, I need to be able to go and say [to constituents], 'You know what? We appreciate you, we appreciate you sticking with us," she said.

Coun. Diane Deans said she's done with defending OC Transpo's 'sub-par' service and wants to temporarily decrease fares as a token of appreciation for riders. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Before the latest LRT delay, OC Transpo was expecting ridership to total 97.8 million in 2019 — more than three million fewer rides than 2012, when the LRT contract was signed.

But Mayor Jim Watson called the idea of a fare rollback "unrealistic" and said it was "pandering" to the public. He's all for extending the fare freeze that was supposed to expire July 1, but not a reduction.

Among other things, Watson said that a freeze is affordable, costing a little more than $300,000 a month, while a temporary discount could cost as much as $5 million a month.

Both Watson and Deans say RTG should be charged for the lost revenue from lower fares, although it's not at all certain RTG will agree to either plan.

Councillors will hash out what to do about fares at their meeting next week.

Mayor Jim Watson says he's called a meeting with the heads of Rideau Transit Group and Alstom to discuss the delays and push for a solution. 0:40

5. Delay to cost tens of millions

At the end of last year, the city treasurer estimated that the LRT delay was costing the city $25 million, but that was assuming it was finished by March 31.

The total will be significantly more once this is all said and done.

Additional costs come from keeping buses on the road longer than planned — as well as paying drivers incentives to stick with OC Transpo — extending bus detours and keeping the O-Train construction office going.

The city plans on sticking RTG with the costs related to the delay. The city still owes almost $260 million for the massive project, and plans to subtract the delay-related costs from that total bill.  

Does RTG know about this plan?

"They know about it," Manconi said. "Doesn't mean they are going to agree with it."

Considering RTG is not taking responsibility for the costs related to the June 2016 sinkhole, it's likely there will be a lengthy dispute over costs, which could even end up in court.

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