The construction and maintenance of the Ottawa LRT project was plagued by persistent failures in leadership and saw “egregious violations of the public trust,” a scathing new report has found.
The sweeping 637-page final report of the Ottawa LRT public inquiry, released Wednesday, found that both the city of Ottawa and Rideau Transit Group lost sight of the public interest during the project.
“The people of Ottawa deserve better,” Commissioner Justice William Hourigan told a news conference. “There were persistent failures in leadership, partnership and communications in the construction and maintenance of the LRT.”
Hourigan was tasked with investigating the circumstances that led to the breakdowns and derailments of the $2.1-billion Confederation Line since its launch in September 2019.
His report lists several reasons for the problems with the LRT. He found that the city chose unproven technology for the trains, RTG didn’t coordinate the work of its subcontractors, the city rushed the LRT system into service before it was ready due to political pressure, and RTG and its subcontractors did not provide adequate maintenance.
He also lists several other factors, some of which were beyond the parties’ control. And he says until everyone involved in the project understands that their first obligation is to the public, “there is reason to be concerned that the project will continue to suffer problems.”
The report makes 103 recommendations to fix the problems with the Confederation Line and ensure the same mistakes aren’t made on other large projects.
Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said he has directed city staff to develop an action plan to implement the report’s key recommendations.
“I understand the frustration and disappointment of so many Ottawa residents,” Sutcliffe said Wednesday afternoon. “Frankly, I share their disappointment.”
Sutcliffe also said he will ensure there is increased transparency and oversight of the LRT, including regular updates to the city’s finance and economic development committee and council.
Among the myriad issues that contributed to the LRT’s problems, the commissioner lays out two examples of what he calls “egregious violations of the public trust” on the part of both RTG, senior city staff and then-mayor Jim Watson.
RTG gave city unrealistic dates
First, RTG provided the city with availability dates that they knew were entirely unrealistic, Hourigan said.
“It is unconscionable that RTG and its main sub-contractor knowingly gave the City inaccurate information about when they would finish building the LRT,” Hourigan said.
He said this was done as a “misconceived scheme” to increase commercial pressure on the city, a tactic which he says backfired.
“This gambit only served to increase and accelerate the mistrust that was developing between the parties,” he said.
“The leadership at RTG … seem to have given no thought to the fact that the provision of this misinformation adversely impacted the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
“The people of Ottawa trusted RTG and OLRT-C to be straight with the City and tell the honestly when the system would be ready. The Commission finds that RTG and OLRT-C betrayed that trust.”
City manager misled council, report finds
Second, Hourigan says the conduct of Mayor Jim Watson and senior city staff “irreparably compromised” city council’s ability to provide oversight of the project.
The commission found city staff generally properly shared information about the LRT project during its construction, but that changed during the problematic trial testing period, during which the testing criteria was changed.
“Most troubling was the deliberate effort by Steve Kanellakos, the City Manager, to mislead Council on the decision to lower the testing criteria and on the testing results,” he said.
An August 2019 memo from Kanellakos to council did not seek to provide information to council about testing, the report says. Rather, “it sought to disseminate misinformation and hide critical facts from Council.”
Kanellakos abruptly resigned on Monday.
The report also finds Watson had accurate information about the trial running but failed to provide it to council.
Hourigan called the conduct of city staff “part of a concerning approach taken by senior City officials to control the narrative by the nondisclosure of vital information or outright misrepresentation.”
“Worse, because the conduct was wilful and deliberate, it led to serious concerns about the good faith of senior City staff and raises questions about where their loyalties lie. It is difficult to imagine the successful completion of any significant project while these attitudes prevail within the municipal government.”
Many of the high-profile figures involved in the launch of the system are gone. Watson is no longer the mayor, John Manconi no longer heads OC Transpo, and Peter Lauch is out as the CEO of the Rideau Transit Group.
A statement from a former Watson staffer said the mayor is travelling and hasn’t read the report.
“Mr. Watson is out of the city on a long, planned personal holiday and looks forward to reading the full report upon his return,” the statement said.
Evidence on train testing ‘does not withstand scrutiny’
Hourigan strongly suggests that Manconi, Watson and Kanellakos misled the commission in their testimony about why council wasn’t told about the suspension of train testing in July 2019.
After the first three days of testing saw significant problems, Manconi prepared a memo dated July 31 to inform council that testing had been suspended. However, Manconi testified that Kanellakos directed him not to release the memo.
Manconi and Kanellakos both told the commission that the memo wasn’t released because they had committed to only advise council on the status of testing once it was finished. Watson also adopted that explanation, the report says.
Hourigan did not buy that testimony, he wrote in the report.
“This evidence from Mayor Watson, Manconi, and Kanellakos does not withstand scrutiny, and the Commission does not accept it as a truthful explanation of what motivated the failure to communicate with Council,” the report said.
“On the contrary, the Commission finds that no such commitment was made.”
Report gives 103 recommendations
Hourigan makes 103 recommendations to fix the problems with the Ottawa LRT.
“More than three years after opening, some of the LRT’s problems still have not been fixed,” he says.
Chief among them is that outside safety advisors be retained because of an ongoing issue with the wheel and track interface “that is continuing to cause problems.”
“Given…the failure of City Manager Kanellakos to properly update Council, it is recommended by this Commission that the City continue to retain outside safety advisors and that they report directly to Council or the Transit Commission.”
However, Hourigan said despite the problems, there is reason for optimism as the parties have begun to work together more cooperatively and the system has shown signs of improvement.
“However, until such time as the private and public entities involved in the OLRT1 project understand that their first obligation is to the public, there is reason to be concerned that the project will continue to suffer problems.”
A WhatsApp group that senior staff used to communicate came under particular scrutiny during the inquiry. Hourigan’s report called it an “end run around proper governance.”
Sutcliffe told reporters Wednesday he plans to take a different approach as mayor.
“My intention is to collaborate with city council and not withhold information,” he said.
‘Not surprised’ by the findings
Former Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney said they were “not surprised” by the findings in the report.
“We knew that we had been misled; we knew that that train had not operated for anywhere near 12 days; and we always knew that the culture at the city of Ottawa that had been created by the former mayor was one that left people out of decision-making and that was the majority of council in this case,” McKenney told CTV News at Five.
“As I go through this, what surprises me is the strength and the tone of the commission, that’s a good thing.”
McKenney says the city of Ottawa did not get the “train that we paid for” from Rideau Transit Group and its partners.
Former Coun. Diane Deans says former senior city staff need “to be held accountable” for the findings of the commission.
“I feel like I could have written that report. I had a front-row seat to what was going on, and it was very apparent to me that RTG and the subcontractors were not being honest,” Deans told Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron.
“It was very, very apparent to me that the mayor and his inner circle, and the senior leaders at City Hall were withholding pertinent information from city council.”
Deans wants Coun. Allan Hubley to step down.
“In my estimation, Allan Hubley can no longer sit at the council table and make decisions, he has lost the public’s trust,” Deans said, noting the former chair of the Transit Commission received updates on the project through a WhatsApp chat that weren’t disclosed to all of council.
Deans is also calling on Mayor Sutcliffe and the new council to ask the Ontario government to extend the public inquiry to look into Stage 2 of the LRT project.
Inquiry heard from 41 witnesses
The inquiry, which was called after two derailments on the line in six weeks in the summer of 2021, heard from 41 witnesses over 18 days of public testimony, including top city staff, former mayor Jim Watson, and the heads of the companies involved in building and maintaining the line and the train cars. The inquiry also had consultations with the public and received more than one million documents.
The Confederation Line LRT experienced numerous problems within weeks of its launch in September 2019, including problems with the doors, brakes, onboard computer systems, wheels, tracks, switch heaters, power lines, and within some of the stations themselves, including a noticeable stench in the downtown tunnel.
– with files from Ted Raymond, CTV News Ottawa
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