Mayor sought briefing with minister before Ontario called public LRT inquiry
Ontario cabinet decided to call public inquiry into Ottawa LRT on Wednesday
As the Ontario government pondered calling a public inquiry into Ottawa's light rail system, Mayor Jim Watson sent a five-page letter to the transportation minister extolling the city's "due diligence work" on the Confederation Line and asking to discuss what the city had already done to investigate.
Watson asked Minister Caroline Mulroney for "a fair opportunity to brief you more fully on this important issue and to provide you with a full overview of the steps council is taking" to examine the work of Rideau Transit Group (RTG) and train-maker Alstom, which is also responsible for light-rail vehicle maintenance.
Watson told Mulroney it was important for her to know some of those pushing hardest for a judicial inquiry — presumably councillors like Catherine McKenney and Shawn Menard and NDP MPP Joel Harden — "are opposed to P3 agreements, or any involvement or oversight by the private sector."
The mayor never explicitly urged against calling an inquiry, but he said the city needs "staff to continue to focus their time and energies on ensuring that RTG delivers our shared goal of providing safe light rail service in Ottawa every day.
"I would ask that you keep that in mind should you be contemplating additional provincial oversight."
Mulroney didn't buy that argument.
Late Wednesday, she announced the provincial cabinet had decided to launch a public inquiry into the LRT.
Minister says mayor knew of her concerns
Watson told reporters Thursday morning he welcomes a public inquiry but complained he didn't get a head's up the province was going ahead with an inquiry. Indeed, Mulroney made the announcement soon after cabinet made the decision Wednesday afternoon.
"My only request to the province is, please stop surprising us, let us know in advance when you're going to make a decision that affects our taxpayers, our citizens, our passengers, and our employees," Watson said, adding the province hasn't once expressed any concern about the LRT in the last two years.
He also confirmed the city's auditor general will continue her investigation into the LRT.
Mulroney confirmed Thursday the province will pay for the public inquiry. She also said the mayor "knows that the province has been concerned."
"[The ministry has] been in contact back and forth with the mayor's office over a lot of the issues that have arisen over the past few months," said Mulroney.
The minister faced questions about why the Confederation Line debacle warrants a public inquiry, considering they are usually called when someone has died. In particular, she was asked why a public inquiry hasn't been called into examining how thousands of residents of long-term care homes died of COVID-19.
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Mulroney said the province went with a commission hearing on long-term care problems "to get answers right away" while in the middle of a public health crisis.
"They're trying to get to work, and the trains don't come. They're trying to get to school and the trains don't come," Mulroney said during a news conference Thursday.
"So I think from transit riders in the city of Ottawa, from their perspective, this is something that's needed. They want answers. They deserve a system that works."
Report expected before municipal election
The province spent $600 million on LRT Stage 1, and has promised $1.2 billion for the second phase. Mulroney wants to understand how the money is being spent and what's gone wrong — and didn't rule out holding back funding.
Mulroney said the terms of reference and scope of the inquiry haven't been established yet, but she wants it to look at safety and technical issues, value for money, and accountability.
The province can call an examination into issues of good government under the Public Inquiries Act. The legislation allows the province to set the timeline and budget for the inquiry, and this one is expected to be less expensive and shorter than the judicial inquiry that council voted down last week.
The first major step is to appoint a commissioner, Mulroney told reporters, and she said she hopes recommendations are given in early 2022 "so that we can then move forward with Stage 2."
The next municipal election is Oct. 24, 2022.