Special meeting on LRT expansion sure to hold more surprises

When Ottawa city councillors meet Wednesday afternoon to hear from the public and question staff about the complex Stage 2 LRT contract, they're being asked to consider hundreds of details that they only laid eyes on last Friday.

No one realized Cleary station was being moved to Byron Linear Park until report came out Friday

The latest LRT report revealed that Cleary station has been moved to the Byron Linear Park, without any consultation with the public. (Provided by City of Ottawa)

Of the hundreds of details included in the massive report on the LRT expansion is this little tidbit: Cleary station in Westboro has been moved right onto the Byron Linear Park.

That has startled some residents and public officials, who only found out about the move when the giant report was made public Friday afternoon.

"How is it that we're just getting this now?" said Bay ward Coun. Theresa Kavanaugh.

It's not that she's dead set against the new location, but much like the shocking $4.66-billion price tag for the Stage 2 project, the news came out of the blue.

"It's just the fact that people were caught off guard and were not informed about it," she said. "And I haven't had their feedback. You know, my understanding going into this is that all decisions have already been made."

The bidding process for the LRT extension to the east, west and south ends of the city has been going on for two years. But councillors are being asked to decide on the complex contract — the largest in the city's history, worth more than twice the value of the Confederation Line — in less than two weeks.

On Wednesday afternoon, council will hold a special meeting to questions staff and hear from the public. As of late Tuesday afternoon, 10 people had signed up to speak. The following Wednesday, councillors — seven of whom have been on the job for just three months — are scheduled to vote on the contract in a meeting that also includes approving the 2019 budget.

Hundreds of details

Understandably, many councillors will be fixated on the price tag, which has ballooned by more than $1 billion in the past year. Presumably, they'll want more details on how taxpayers can afford the project, and how they'll be protected in case things go wrong.

But this report is about so much more than money: it includes the construction schedules, bus detours and project timelines — how do you feel about the Trillium Line being down for more than two years? — what the stations look like and where they're located. 

Staying on top of all those details can be overwhelming.

"I'm a little bit concerned about the tight timelines on this project," Orléans Coun. Matt Luloff said.

"Stage 2 is needed," he said. "Stage 1 of the LRT doesn't work without Stage 2. So there's no doubt in my mind that we need this. But what I'm worried about is some of the fringe details."

East West Connectors won the bidding to expand the Confederation Line to the east and west, while a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin is the preferred choice to extend the Trillium Line to the south, and to maintain it until 2048. (City of Ottawa)

Cleary station has been moved a number of times, but before this latest report, it was supposed to be on the north side of Richmond Road, near Cleary Avenue. There was also a vague plan to develop housing on the site. 

But that was always technically tricky due to a massive sewer system under Richmond Road. So during the bidding process, companies vying for the Confederation Line extension asked for the option to build the station across the street, right on top of the Byron Linear Park.

It's now a compact, open-air station of just 100 by 10 metres, with trains running below grade in a trench. The new location was cheaper and less risky, and leaves the previous location available for the city to build affordable housing in the future, according to the city's director of O-Train planning, Chris Swail.

The loss of "a small chunk green space" is "a little bit unfortunate," he said, but added that the station is "closer to the community that uses that park generally."

Chris Swail is the city's director of O-Train planning. (CBC)

City looking for cost savings

Swail conceded that the approval deadline is tight, but said it was unavoidable because the top choice bids — which were selected in November — expire shortly.

In particular, the city needs to finalize its contract with SNC-Lavalin to extend and maintain the Trillium Line by the end of March, which is exceptionally fast for a contract valued at $1.6 billion over three decades.

Swail added that city officials spent January and early February working with East West Connectors, the consortium chosen by the city to extend the Confederation Line, to reduce the cost. That contract is worth $2.57 billion.