The province’s commission on the Ottawa Light Rail Transit (LRT) system began its public hearings on Monday, hoping to shed light on back-and-forth lawsuits, multiple mechanical breakdowns and a money sink for all involved.
The commission was struck in December of 2021, after Ottawa’s City Council had voted against a judicial inquiry. Placed under the privy of Caroline Mulroney as the minister of transportation, the commission is required to submit its findings on or before August 31, with the option to extend the inquiry until November. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson had sent a letter to Mulroney in November of 2021 attempting to avoid a judicial inquiry. Mulroney ignored Watson’s request for “a fair opportunity to brief (her) more fully on this important issue,” and struck the commission.
The commission is led by the Honourable Justice William Hourigan, a Superior Court judge.
Two executives from Infrastructure Ontario (IO) — John Traianopoulos, senior vice president, and Robert Pattison, senior vice President, commercial resolutions — will be testifying in the public hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Both have already had formal interviews with the commission, transcripts of which were made public last week.
IO’s involvement in the project, according to the crown corporation’s website, was as a public-private partnership “commercial procurement advisor” to Ottawa. Essentially, IO gave financial and commercial advice to the city, which included the recommendation of the design-build-finance-maintain contract that the city eventually gave to the Rideau Transit Group. Public-private partnerships are partnerships between public contractors and private sector design, construction and financing. While the Ottawa LRT was mainly handled by the city, with IO relegated to an advisory role, public-private partnerships have been the province’s approach to the majority of its transit projects, including the Ontario Line and the Hurontario LRT.
The first stage of the LRT was approved in 2012 by the city council and a group of companies including ACS Infrastructure, EllisDon and SNC Lavalin who successfully won a bid for the $2.1-billion contract to build the LRT. The consortium, also known as the Rideau Transit Group, entered a 30-year agreement with the city to design, build, finance and maintain the Ottawa LRT system. The first stage of construction was funded by $600 million from the federal and provincial governments in 2014, with a smaller share covered by the municipality as well. The province also committed $1.2 billion to the expansion of the Ottawa LRT in 2019.
The Ottawa LRT’s construction was a rocky ride from the beginning.
Less than a year and a half after the project’s first stage was awarded and Ottawa city council approved the line in late 2012, the first sinkhole broke open near the planned site for Rideau Station. Just over two years later, in June 2016, construction caused a second sinkhole to break open at one of the city’s busiest intersections — which multiple businesses filed lawsuits over.
Three workers were temporarily trapped in one of the project’s tunnels after it collapsed five months later and emerged without any serious injuries. The LRT missed multiple construction and testing deadlines and was eventually opened almost a year and a half late.
The city has since then filed two notices of default to break the contract with the Rideau Transit Group, once in 2020 and again in 2021.
The commission will meet with 41 witnesses, mainly from city staff and Rideau Transit Group officials, through to July 8.