Ottawa·Analysis

Will LRT be delayed a third time?

When city officials are asked whether the LRT will be ready by March 31, and they respond with talk about the importance of safety, it's a good time to start wondering whether the $2.1-billion project will be delayed for the third time.

Rideau Transit Group officials will give an update at Tuesday's finance committee meeting

RTG continues to test the city's new light-rail trains, in addition to safety and communication systems. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

When city officials are asked whether the LRT will be ready by March 31, and they launch into a dissertation about the importance of safety, it's a good time to start wondering whether the $2.1-billion project will be delayed for the third time.

After tabling the 2019 budget at the transit commission meeting Wednesday, OC Transpo and transportation general manager John Manconi was asked specifically if he had confidence the Rideau Transit Group would turn over the 12.5-km Confederation Line on deadline, and here's what he had to say.

"You've heard me over and over again — the train will launch when it's tested, commissioned, safe to do so," Manconi told reporters.

"Get it up and running when it's ready to run. That's our mandate."

Coun. Allan Hubley, the new chair of the transit commission, piped in on the subject of safety: "That's our first priority and our only priority … We have to have the trains fully tested and safe before they start running and taking passengers."

When asked if they were confident RTG would meet its March 31 deadline, both Coun. Allan Hubley, left, and transit boss John Manconi talked about the importance of safety. (CBC)

'Safety' used as cover for delay

It's not the first time Manconi and others have raised the importance of safety when asked if the LRT project was on schedule.

In 2017, Manconi outright refused to speak about the original May 2018 deadline, even though it was spelled out in the contract.

Falling back on the "safety" argument is somewhat galling, because it implies people — usually reporters — wanting to know if the largest project in Ottawa's history is on time somehow don't care whether the system is also safe.

Mayor now says he was a 'doubter'

There are other indications that meeting the March 31 deadline could be in jeopardy.

For one, Mayor Jim Watson — who has not used his "on time, on budget" slogan for LRT in some time — told a local radio station he was concerned RTG might not meet its deadline.

"I'm always a bit of a doubter. I'll believe it when I see it," he told the station.

Always a doubter? That's not how we remember it. As recently as November, Watson told reporters he had "great confidence" LRT would be up and running by the end of the first quarter of 2019.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said last November he had 'great confidence' the LRT would be up and running early in 2019. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

RTG, a consortium of international companies led by SNC Lavalin and Dragados, has refused to answer media questions about the project.

Last week, CBC asked about reports of water in the tunnel and Rideau Station, and asked whether RTG was still on track to meet the upcoming deadline.

After days of no response whatsoever, on Monday, a spokesperson for RTG wrote back to say the company had received the email, "but will not be providing comment."

RTG summoned to FEDCO

However, RTG officials will be on the hot seat Tuesday. They have been summoned to appear before the finance and economic development committee to answer directly to councillors, something that has rarely happened since the contract was awarded more than six years ago. 

Perhaps they're coming to deliver good news in person. More likely, though, councillors will want to ask RTG officials some tough questions that in the past have been directed at Manconi, who didn't — and should not be expected to — have the answers.

Has the train been tested through the entirety of the tunnel? Is there water in the tunnel, as workers have reported to CBC? How is the complex communications system — the one Manconi has expressed so much concern about — working? Where is RTG in its testing schedule?

And when might RTG be ready to run the light-rail system on a full schedule for 12 days straight, as called for in the contract?

On Tuesday, we'll get the answers to these concerns. But we've had a right to ask them before now.

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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