Pimisi, one of the 13 Confederation Line stations still waiting to deliver light rail to Ottawans. City of Ottawa

Sinkholes, winter-weary trains, and political upheaval have held the Confederation Line light-rail transit back from a seriously overdue opening.

“Get ready for rail.”

At first the slogan for Ottawa’s new transit project felt like a command. Then it was a question mark, and now it’s a desperate plea—as if the city could will into existence a light-rail plan that has been talked about for the better part of 20 years. 

Ground broke in 2013 on Ottawa’s extension of its O-Train system—then, a five-station, diesel-powered light-rail line. The mission was to electrify the network and extend it to central, eastern, and southern parts of the city with two new add-ons, the brand-new Confederation Line and the Trillium Line addition.   

But it hasn’t gone so smoothly. After years of planning and waiting, some in Ottawa might feel like their rapid transit dreams are simply cursed. In 2014, two years after the CDN$2.1-billion project was officially approved by council, a sinkhole measuring 26 feet wide by 39 feet deep opened up near a tunneling site. Two years later on one of the city’s busiest streets, a second LRT tunnel-related sinkhole—this one 92 by 131 feet in area and 16 feet deep—swallowed a van.

And that’s just the sinkholes. The 7.7-mile Stage 1, known as the Confederation Line, has been consistently bedeviled by problems. Originally due in May 2018, It’s still not open yet. Instead, empty trains glide up and down the route for testing, taunting Ottawans who are most definitely #Ready4Rail. The new delivery date is “sometime before Canada Day,” on July 1.

Stage 1 of the Confederation Line (City of Ottawa)

The consortium tasked with building and delivering the LRT, the Rideau Transit Group (RTG), needs 12 consecutive days of near-flawless testing on all 34 of its Alstom Citadis Spirit train cars before it can release them into the wild. Just one issue with a car, though, and the 12 days restart. RTG has been testing the trains for months.

This past winter, after a train got stuck in the snow during a trial run, CBC reporter Joanne Chianello obtained internal reports that said the trains may not be able to withstand Ottawa’s cold, snowy winters. “Vehicles are currently unreliable to the point that it has not been demonstrated that operations can be sustained during a winter weather event,” one report read.

But that’s next winter’s problem. The day after Chianello’s CBC story, the city’s transportation general manager John Manconi told city councilors at a public meeting that RTG was looking forward to the end of winter to finish testing: “Better weather will certainly help.”

And then there’s Stage 2, a CDN$4.7-billion project and the city’s biggest procurement ever. A $1.6-billion slice of that project was awarded to SNC-Lavalin, an engineering and construction management firm currently facing charges of corruption and fraud. SNC-Lavalin is also a key member of the RTG consortium building the thrice-delayed Stage 1.

So, what the hell is happening with the LRT? “[Constituents] are exactly right to ask that question, because we don’t know the answer,” says Ottawa city councilor Rick Chiarelli.

Contracts, bids kept secret

Chiarelli, who has been an Ottawa city councilor since 1988, says the people tasked with running the city have been largely kept in the dark on the LRT project. In March, he voted against approving the $4.7-billion budget on Stage 2, saying that proper oversight had not been done on the project.

Stage 2 would extend the LRT to the east, west, and south ends of Ottawa, adding 27 miles of track and 24 stations. It will have a staggered opening, with the last stations due in 2025. “What worries me the most about the LRT project is the contract on LRT Stage 2, and the award of that contract to a company that clearly didn’t meet the minimal technical requirements, and the fact that we couldn’t get information on it,” he tells CityLab.

Chiarelli says not only are the competitive bids on Stage 2 being kept secret, but so are the technical scores of the three pre-qualified companies. The only reason councilors learned SNC-Lavalin didn’t pass its technical score is because CBC reported it. Councilors still don’t know why SNC-Lavalin—an accomplished engineering firm currently at the heart of a national scandal—won at all. When councilors challenged this, they were told by a city lawyer that it was none of their business.

As well, councilors had to approve the $4.7-billion budget without knowing the details of what they were getting for that money. In addition to the bids and technical scores, contracts have also been kept secret—unless, Chiarelli says, councilors sign an agreement promising not to reveal the contents of the contracts. “It’s unethical, if we represent the public, to not tell the public once we’ve heard about it,” says the councilor. He has filed access to information requests to gain insight into various aspects of the LRT projects, and is considering filing more.

An Ottawa law professor told CBC that not revealing contracts to councilors may seem secretive, but it’s fairly common for capital works projects. Still, the cloak-and-dagger spirit of the LRT project appears strange in an era of open government initiatives in cities and countries around the world, including Canada. In fact, many Ottawa city contracts are not easily accessible to the media and general public, LRT or otherwise. Chiarelli believes the public deserves to know about these contracts as they’re happening, because they’re ultimately the ones who are going to be paying for it—now, and for decades to come. 

An unwelcome provincial surprise

On top of all this, past Ottawa may have written a check future Ottawa can’t cash.

When Ottawa city council voted to approve the $4.7-billion LRT Stage 2 budget, it did so assuming the Ontario provincial government would make good on an earlier promise to share carbon-tax funding with municipalities.

Canada recently introduced federal carbon taxes for provinces that refuse to create their own gas-tax policies. Under this scheme, Ottawa was due to receive $1 billion spread over 30 years.

However, provincial leadership has changed since then and new Ontario premier Doug Ford—who is staunchly opposed to federal carbon taxes and has worked to undermine them—backtracked, withdrawing the funding. The change was made in the provincial budget, just a few weeks after Ottawa passed its own budget authorizing the Stage 2 overage.

Now Ottawa has to find an additional $1 billion to cover that deficit, on top of coughing up its share of the $4.7-billion Stage 2 price tag. (The municipal, provincial, and federal governments are sharing the cost, with Ottawa on the hook for $2.4 billion.) That may affect plans to further extend the LRT to a third phase, which would include an interprovincial route connecting Ottawa to Quebec’s side of the capital region. “We have no money for Stage 3,” says Chiarelli.

He says ideally, the province would bump up its share of LRT funding. In April, Ontario earmarked $28.5 billion for Toronto’s transit system. But without more provincial money, Ottawa may find itself struggling to pay for its ambitious light rail system. “They can come up with short-term solutions at the city for the first few years of LRT Stage 2, but then we can’t afford anything else. It’s just not tenable—we’ll have trouble fixing roads, and any future capital projects are questionable,” he says.

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