Stephen Blais is “more focused on the outcome than the process” of the Ottawa Light Rail Transit (LRT) Commission.
Blais, who was recently re-elected as the Liberal MPP for the Ottawa suburb of Orléans, told QP Briefing of his suspicions around the political motivations behind the LRT Commission struck by the Ford government in December 2021, under the purview of the ministry of transportation. The judicial commission is being led by Justice William Hourigan.
READ MORE: Ottawa LRT Commission begins public hearings
“I think there was a fair bit of both local and provincial political motivation behind (the province’s) decision to do the process they've chosen,” Blais said.
Locally, city councillors hoping to “embarrass” outgoing Mayor Jim Watson were “beating a drum in Ottawa to rile up their base there,” Blais said.
“They are fundamentally against (public-private partnerships) ideologically, it has nothing to do with any kind of concrete facts … They have an ideological aversion to private-sector involvement in anything,” he added.
The testimonies of two Infrastructure Ontario (IO) executives to the commission have focused on the public-private partnership (P3) project development model, specifically the design-build-finance-maintain (DBFM) model used in creating the $2.1 billion LRT deal. P3s have been used extensively in transportation projects across the province since being introduced in 2001, and DBFM contracts have been implemented for other LRT projects, mostly in the GTA, including the Finch West and Eglinton Crosstown LRTs.
Provincially, Blais alleges the Ford government saw the LRT commission as “an opportunity to potentially go after a Liberal mayor in Ottawa and potentially other Liberals that may or may not have been involved in the LRT project at different stages to see what might come out of it.”
The commission was created after Ottawa’s city council voted against its own judicial commission, and Watson had sought to delay the commission in a request to Caroline Mulroney, the minister of transportation, but was denied a meeting. Watson was a member of former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet, from 2003 to 2010, before his second term as mayor. Blais was a city councillor — from 2010 to 2020 — and chair of the city’s transit committee but did not oversee the LRT’s development. Before that, he worked on Watson’s first provincial election campaign and was part of his staff during Watson’s first term.
Blais conducted a formal interview with the commission but wasn’t called as a witness for the public hearings.
Now that the commission has begun its investigation, Blais said, “It's important for us to see what comes out of it and take the considerations and recommendations of the panel seriously when we get them.”
As for the debate around P3s and the model's role in the tumultuous construction and rollout of the Ottawa LRT, Blais is emphatic that “every project should be evaluated on its own merits.”
“We don't know if the procurement model was the reason why things were behind schedule, and we don't know if those schedules would have stayed the same or been accelerated or been delayed even further if it was a traditional model,” Blais argued. “I think too many people are trying to make blanket statements about a very broad type of model, which is always a mistake to begin with. And it's very challenging to make those broad statements simply because there were negative circumstances in one project that may or may not be the fault of the P3 and may or not be things that can or even will be replicated.”
Joel Harden, an NDP MPP also representing Ottawa, is one of those with opposing views on P3s.
“P3s cost more, take longer, and can leave residents holding the bag on a much poorer product. That’s exactly what happened with Ottawa’s disastrous LRT. Ontario’s auditor general found that P3s waste literally millions of dollars,” Harden said, referring to a 2014 auditor general report that found P3 projects were $8-billion more than if they had been solely managed by the public sector.
“Yet recent governments in Ontario have loved P3s because they help funnel taxpayer dollars to the very richest financiers and developers. Ontario should stop paying extra and go back to tried and true methods of building what we need,” Harden added.