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Former citizen transit commissioner hopes LRT inquiry report will be 'cathartic'

"I am hopeful that the people of Ottawa and those councillors who were kept out of the loop and the people who use the system will get some sense of vindication with this report."

'What I'm most hoping to hear is an acknowledgment of what we all long suspected, that information was being withheld from the transit commission and council and the public, particularly about the testing period,' said former citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert.
'What I'm most hoping to hear is an acknowledgment of what we all long suspected, that information was being withheld from the transit commission and council and the public, particularly about the testing period,' said former citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

Untested trains. Unreasonable expectations. Malleable approval criteria. Back channel WhatsApp chats. Political pressure.

All those problems and more were laid bare during 18 days of public testimony at the Ottawa Light-Rail Transit Inquiry. Making sense of it all — including the claims and counter-claims by the city and its consultants, and the troubled train’s builders and maintainers — has been the job of Justice William Hourigan, who presided over the inquiry.

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Few can expect to come out unscathed when Hourigan releases his final report Wednesday morning.

“I’m hoping it will be cathartic,” said Sarah Wright-Gilbert, a former citizen transit commissioner who testified at the inquiry.

“I don’t want to get my hopes too high … but I am hopeful that the people of Ottawa and those councillors who were kept out of the loop and the people who use the system will get some sense of vindication with this report,” said Wright-Gilbert, whose term on the transit watchdog ended last month with the municipal election.

“What I’m most hoping to hear is an acknowledgment of what we all long suspected, that information was being withheld from the transit commission and council and the public, particularly about the testing period.”

Among the documents entered into evidence during the inquiry were more than 600 pages of WhatsApp messages between former mayor Jim Watson, city manager Steve Kanellakos, former OC Transpo general manager John Manconi and Transit Commission chair Coun. Alan Hubley.

Revealing (“Our reputation is in tatters,” Watson wrote in one message) and at times embarrassing (there’s blood all over the boardroom floor,” Manconi reported after a meeting with Rideau Transit Group), the messages gave the public a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes decision-making process among senior city officials.

“It just demonstrated for me what I’ve been saying for a very long time: That there’s no transparency, no accountability,” Wright-Gilbert said.

But the inquiry probed far more than just the unfiltered thoughts of the city’s top brass. It also looked at the structure of the public-private partnership (P3) agreement to build the system, the decision to change the criteria the builder needed to meet before the city took possession, the technical challenges a new and untested train faced in a harsh climate like Ottawa’s and even the difficulty the train builder, Alstom, faced with the “limited qualified local (workforce) for industrial manufacturing” in Ottawa.

Hourigan heard how the relationship between the city and Rideau Transit Group soured after a section of Rideau Street collapsed into an enormous sinkhole in 2016. Antonio Estrada, the CEO of RTG during most of the LRT’s construction, testified that the city became “less co-operative and more contractual” after the sinkhole debacle.

Matthew Slade, director of the LRT construction team, described the intense pressure the consortium felt while building the Confederation Line.

“The level of attention from the media and politicians was quite intense and not something I’d experienced before,” testified Slade, who came to Ottawa from England after working on a new line for the London Underground.

Slade said the city’s push for a fall 2018 launch date would require “the stars to align” and would only be possible “in a Utopian world.”

His suggestion of a soft launch for the train was dismissed out of hand by the city, he testified.

In its closing statement, the city argued that the inquiry had spent too much time looking at the city’s failings and not enough at the shortcomings of the LRT’s designers and builders. It’s things like cracked wheels, malfunctioning signals and poor maintenance that have made the system unreliable, not anything the city has done, its lawyers argued.

It appeared at times that the public sector was on trial. The city was criticized both for being too hard on RTG and too soft,” the closing statement said.

(Rideau Transit Group) let the City down and it is RTG that should be called to account in respect of the issues affecting reliability of the system so that transit riders in the city can rely on this new system that they bought and paid for. Taxpayers should not bear the burden of private sector failures.”

In its closing statement, RTG countered that the city brought problems on itself with its “unrealistic expectations” for light-rail transit.

The problems with the project had an outsized impact on Ottawa’s residents because their municipal government set unrealistic expectations,” RTG’s lawyers wrote. “Elected officials promised the public a turnkey system and campaigned on delivering it with no delays. When their own advisers warned them that no complex transit system, newly-built and operated, would launch problemfree, the political die was already cast.”

“I don’t think RTG will come out unscathed,” Wright-Gilbert said. “It’s clear that there are problems with the system.

“One thing the the inquiry is asking is, ‘How did we get here?’ ” she said. “But it’s also asking, ‘How are we never going to let this happen again?’ ”

Hourigan will release his final report on Wednesday at 11 a.m. in a briefing that will be streamed live to the web on the inquiry’s site OttawaLRTPublicInquiry.ca.

  1. LRT inquiry to issue final report Nov. 30

  2. File photo: An LRT train sits idle on the track at the OC Transpo Belfast Yard.

    LRT inquiry: City argues contractors should shoulder blame for system's issues in closing statement; RTG contends city set unrealistic expectations