The future of Ottawa transit after light rail…

I remember the excitement I felt when Ottawa’s long-awaited light rail finally opened to the public. This new train promised to shorten my long daily commutes, and when it worked, it was wonderful. But soon my commute, like that of many Ottawa residents, suffered from frequent delays and being forced to take crowded buses, even during a pandemic. Why did this happen and what does it mean for the future of Ottawa transit?

A short story

In 2012, the City of Ottawa awarded the Rideau Transit Group (RTG) a $2.1 billion contract to build a new light rail transit (LRT) system in the capital as part of a public-private partnership (P3) project. Unfortunately, although it was supposed to be completed in 2017, the railway system will not open to the public until September 2019. The construction process has encountered many obstacles, including a sinkhole and trains unable to withstand winters strictness of the city. Despite these shortcomings, in 2019 the City awarded RTG a second contract, worth $4.66 billion, to extend the light rail system.

This was only the beginning of the turmoil that would plague this project. Shortly after the LRT opened to the public, it was often delayed, usually due to maintenance issues. Unfortunately, things continued to get worse,
and in September 2021 the line was closed for 54 days after two derailments in six weeks. This sparked outrage from many passengers demanding an explanation for both the dangerous conditions of the derailments and the prolonged service disruptions that followed.

The politics behind

In November 2021, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada determined that one of the derailments was caused by improper train maintenance. Following that report, ATU 279, Ottawa’s transit union, released a statement blaming the city’s “continued use of public-private partnerships that put profit before safety.” Horizon Ottawa board member Sam Hersh also believes the P3 model is at the heart of LRT’s problems. “The city tried to get the deal as cheaply as possible and rush it as quickly as possible for reasons of political expediency, and the private partners want to take shortcuts [by] making it as cheap as possible. They don’t really have the public interest in mind,” he explains.

Additionally, there is controversy regarding the organization chosen to undertake the SLR project. Rideau Transit Group is a consortium of companies that includes SNC Lavalin, the Montreal-based engineering firm that became a household name after its involvement in an infamous corruption scandal involving the federal government. Previously classified documents released by the City revealed that SNC Lavalin’s component of the second stage of the bid failed to achieve the required technical score assessed by experts twice. However, city leaders were advised not to disqualify the company from the bidding process by their attorneys at Norton Rose Fulbright, a firm that once represented SNC Lavalin. Although it did not meet the technical threshold, SNC Lavalin’s offer had an advantage over its competitors because it was significantly cheaper, which led to it being chosen. Mayor Jim Watson and City Manager Steve Kanellakos defended the choice, saying it was “good value for taxpayers.” This is how TransitNEXT, a wholly-owned subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin, won the $1.6 billion contract for the north-south extension of Ottawa’s Trillium Line.
Finally, one of the most concerning aspects of this debacle is the lack of transparency on the part of the mayor and city executives. Watson resisted a legal inquiry proposed by councilor Catherine McKenney and instead supported a municipal audit proposed by another councilor. Unlike the judicial inquiry, an audit would not have public hearings and the Auditor General would not be able to investigate the mayor or members of council. During a heated debate, Watson muted fellow adviser Diane Deans when she challenged him about the audit. Nonetheless, the province has decided to launch a public inquiry into the September derailment in November 2021. The province’s inquiry has more power than the city-led inquiry, but does not have the scope of an inquiry. judicial. Depending on the results of the investigation, Premier Doug Ford has said he may withhold funding for construction of Stage 2 of the LRT. The province has already withheld $60 million in Phase 1 funding.

Taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going, and Ottawa residents deserve to know why their transit system has struggled (and failed) to provide reliable service.

Building a better future

Many lessons can be learned from this debacle. According to Hersh, this should be an indictment of P3s for maintaining the city’s infrastructure. He says that “ideally what we want to see is greater public ownership of our municipal infrastructure.” In the ATU 279 statement, President Clint Crabtree echoed that sentiment, saying, “There’s no reason any of this work couldn’t have been done in-house where we have real trained and unionized maintenance. Failure to do so is putting people’s lives at risk. The union describes the lack of transparency surrounding this project as “typical of P3 projects”.

A better transportation system would require more transparency to the public and the city council regarding its infrastructure projects. Taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going, and Ottawa residents deserve to know why their transit system has struggled (and failed) to provide reliable service. When voting on expansions, investments and improvements, city councilors should have access to all of this historical information.

Accessibility is one of the key elements of a better public transport system, starting with free public transport for all. Hersh says that instead of relying on fare revenue, transportation should rely solely on public funding. “There will be people who will use public transit no matter how busy it is, because it’s a public good.” He adds that free transport “would also make it safer for public transport workers, since the vast majority of assaults that hit drivers in the public transport system are due to fare disputes”. Kari Elliott, member of the Ottawa Transit Riders Board of Directors, agrees that “it is completely and utterly ridiculous to continue to raise transit fares on our declining transit system. It really hurts low-income people…and it hurts people who rely on public transit. Raising fares as a means of solving a transit funding crisis is as short-sighted as it is inequitable.

Elliott also stresses the importance of making public transit accessible to people with disabilities, the subject of Ottawa Transit Riders’ ParaParity campaign. Although the buses and the LRT are designed to be fairly accessible to wheelchair users, access to the system is more difficult. “A lot of members of our group say they can use regular public transit in the summer, but in the winter, when the snow comes, they have to go to Para-Transpo. Para-Transpo, a municipal service for people unable to use conventional public transit, has limited resources and capacity, making it difficult to meet the needs of its users. Users have to book the service in advance, which is not helpful if they want to take spontaneous trips, and reservations have to be made over the phone, and it can take hours. Simple changes like better snow removal and an online reservation system could make all the difference.

People with disabilities should be given the opportunity to voice their needs and be listened to, but Elliott says Para-Transpo is often absent from the agenda of monthly Transit Commission meetings, preventing discussion of the question.

Good public transport must also be reliable, which is difficult when the city does not have enough buses to cover all its routes, especially when the train breaks down. This results in cuts, mainly on neighborhood roads. Elliott says there is a lack of communication from OC Transpo about delayed or canceled buses, and wants to see more specific messaging. “They need to stop pretending that if they don’t tell us, it’s not actually happening.”

Finally, a good transport system must be in contact with its users. Much of Ottawa’s public transit is currently designed around suburban commuters who work downtown, although many of these people are now working remotely and the most recent census data shows commuter commutes. Ottawa are changing, with more workers commuting between suburbs, and “back and forth” from downtown to the outskirts of the city. “These are people who work and travel, but they may not be [travelling from] suburb to downtown. said Elliott. “So we really need to have a comprehensive overview of the routes that are really important to the people who are currently using them.”

After years of delays and derailments, it is important to remember the vital role that quality public transit can play in the lives of people and communities at large. “A lot of people argue that we have to choose between being free and being reliable, but we know we don’t have to,” Hersh says. “We can have a free and reliable system.” Having a free and reliable public transport system designed around the needs of its users would improve the quality of life in the city by saving people money, reducing the number of cars on the road, connecting communities and making getting around the city more accessible.

“Public transport [is] opening the door to making the city truly accessible to low-income people,” says Elliott.

The SLR scandal showed us what we don’t want in a public transit system. With the first major change in leadership in over 10 years, the time has come for Ottawa residents to demand the public transit system we deserve.

Jose P. Rogers