What lessons of damning Ottawa LRT report can be applied to Eglinton Crosstown LRT?

It's been weeks since the Ontario government announced an indefinite delay for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT project. Residents and business owners are frustrated with a lack of communication and ongoing construction. Nick Westoll reports.

As City of Ottawa officials deal with the damning findings of a public inquiry into that municipality’s newer LRT system, what lessons can, should, and will be applied to the delayed Eglinton Crosstown LRT project in Toronto?

Justice William Hourigan said in his report released on Wednesday that the City of Ottawa and the Rideau Transit Group consortium lost sight of the public interest amid political pressure to rush the $2.1 billion project across the finish line, adding problems were caused by “deliberate malfeasance.”

Hourigan’s report said two instances stood out as “egregious violations of the public trust:” the project’s unrealistic deadlines and the fact that information about testing was withheld from the public. The initial completion date of May 2018 was called “entirely unrealistic.”

As a commercial tactic, he wrote, it was a “failure” because the deliberate communication of “unachievable dates” did nothing to improve the transit group’s standing with local business. Instead, it only served to accelerate mistrust.

“More fundamentally, it represented a troubling lack of concern for the public nature of the project and the interests of the people of Ottawa,” Hourigan wrote.

He added that leaders “seemed 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,” and that was a betrayal of citizens’ trust.

RELATED: Ottawa LRT report shows system was rushed, slams City officials

Critical information about the trial running of the light rail system was withheld from city council and only provided to the mayor’s office and the chair of the city’s transit commission, the inquiry also found. The report accused then-mayor Jim Watson and other senior staff of deliberately misleading and spinning the public.

The public inquiry was ordered by the Ontario government after Ottawa city council declined to take that step.

In the days since stage one of Ottawa’s LRT system launched, there have been a number of issues that plagued the line including two train derailments.

Hourigan’s recommendations revolved around ways to improve planning complex infrastructure, preparing estimates and budgets for projects, picking a model for how projects will be delivered, ways to reduce risk when projects go out for tender, creating “effective” contracts, ways to resolve disputes, independent oversight, testing and commissions, safety, training, trial runs and handing over the project, how to have better working relationships and transparency.

There were also a series of recommendations dealing with communications, including calls to advise stakeholders on changes to construction plans and to develop a process to “honestly identify and communicate reliability and safety issues.” The report said communications should “be focused at all times on furthering the public interest” as it relates to the Ottawa project.

“As an overarching consideration, a public agency must prioritize the protection of the public interest,” the document said.

“The public has the right to safe, reliable infrastructure and to receive regular and honest communications from the government regarding its construction status and operations.”

Premier Doug Ford was asked for his reaction to the public inquiry report during a Thursday morning news conference, calling the job done by officials “terrible.”

“A lot of frustrating stuff we saw and thank goodness we did the inquiry,” he said while specifically referencing Watson and the former city manager who stepped down two days before the report’s release.

“It was just absolute [sic] in shambles and it stunk to high heaven, and we wanted to dig deeper and we did and it’s come out now.”

Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney issued a statement on Wednesday saying the provincial government is working to make sure Ontario taxpayers and transit riders get the service they deserve.

“As a funding partner, provincial taxpayers deserve accountability for their money,” she said.

Like the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, the opening of the Ottawa LRT system has been delayed beyond the initial projected opening date. However, there are a number of differences between the two systems.

First of all, Eglinton Crosstown trains haven’t gone into service. On Sept. 23, Metrolinx — the provincial transportation agency overseeing the project — made the long-suspected announcement of another delay (the line was supposed to open in 2020). The details were contained in a blog post with no information on the specific reasons for the latest delay and what the new projected opening date is.

Secondly, the consortium building the LRT line in Toronto is different from Ottawa and it is largely being overseen by the provincial government versus the municipality.

The Crosstown has been plagued by various delays, including COVID-19, supply chain issues and labour union strikes. Complex and unforeseen construction-related issues also impacted timelines. A previous legal settlement between Metrolinx and Crosslinx, the private-sector consortium building the LRT line, aimed to have substantial completion in 2022. Informal estimates suggested the LRT line could open sometime by the end of 2023, but Ontario government officials aren’t confirming either way if this is accurate.

RELATED: Some neighbourhoods choking with traffic as businesses await Eglinton Crosstown delay info

There have been calls by some in Toronto, including small business representatives, to have a public inquiry into the Eglinton Crosstown project — which began in 2011. To date, a similar inquiry hasn’t been announced.

CityNews contacted Mulroney’s office, Metrolinx and Crosslinx Thursday morning to ask about Hourigan’s recommendations, if any of the issues raised or recommendations made could be applied to the Eglinton Crosstown project, and for more information on the nature of the latest delays.

No response was received by Mulroney’s office. A Crosslinx representative referred CityNews to Metrolinx. A spokesperson for Metrolinx issued a brief statement hours after the publication of this story to say, “We have nothing to add from September’s statement.”

Since the delay was announced in September, CityNews has pushed several times for further information such as the new targeted opening date along with a breakdown on where and what the outstanding issues are. Despite more than half a dozen inquiries being sent to Metrolinx, Crosslinx and Mulroney’s office, many of those messages and questions have to date gone unanswered.

Business owners and residents CityNews has spoken with to date said they too have been looking for further information and haven’t heard much.

Documents released ahead of a Metrolinx board meeting on Thursday contained few answers to what the latest issues are affecting the Eglinton Crosstown project. During the meeting Thursday morning, CEO Phil Verster was asked about what lessons from Ottawa is the organization taking away. He said he and Metrolinx staff will be bringing a report back focusing on vehicle performance and safety, but didn’t expand on specific concerns surrounding the project.

In early November, CityNews went to an unrelated news conference in Bradford as part of an ongoing effort to get further information beyond the statement posted on the Metrolinx blog site.

“I share their frustrations, all of us do, of the people who live along the corridor and the businesses that are there. That’s why we’ve provided financial support in the past, but as you know this is a project we inherited from the Liberals. It was mismanaged from the start,” Mulroney said at the time.

The questions posed by a reporter weren’t directly answered. While at the helm since mid-2018, Mulroney said the Progressive Conservative government brought in new legislation to streamline approvals for massive transit projects put forward such as the Ontario Line.

With files from The Canadian Press

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