Fixing the Mess of Ottawa’s LRT— All Aboard for Policy that Works

The second in a series of articles for Policy by Master’s students at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, McGill University.

Kathryn Lemieux

June 16, 2020

Crowded stations, delays due to outages, and issues with replacement buses were the headlines following the first week of operation for Ottawa’s LRT system and have continued in the nine months since.

After years of planning and construction, the project continues to fail to live up to resident expectations. The September 2019 opening was contrary to the original slogan of “On Track 2018” and was not “On Budget and On Time” as the city had promised after four formal missed handovers. The lack of transparency and accountability surrounding the LRT is notable as it is one of the biggest procurement and construction projects of the past two decades in Ottawa and has been subject to significant public and media scrutiny.

The City of Ottawa adopted an Accountability and Transparency Policy in 2007 (revised in 2014), that defines transparency as, “the principle that the municipality will conduct its business in an accessible, clear and visible manner and that its activities are open to examination by its stakeholders.”

Included in the policy are seven principles to guide municipal governance and promote accountability and transparency. Despite the clear guidance within this policy, the City of Ottawa has failed to incorporate these principles into the managing of the LRT and the lack of transparency has proven to be a significant barrier for holding them accountable for the failures of the system.

The first principle is for decision-making to be open and transparent. The city has failed to live up to this, both with the public and City Council itself. The unreliability of the system to function in winter weather conditions is an unacceptable oversight. After all, We Are the North.

That these trains had not been tested in winter conditions should have be shared with stakeholders before a contract was signed, not after the third handover deadline had passed, which is to say been missed. This ties in with the second principle that municipal operations be conducted in an ethical and accountable manner. To move forward with a system that will not operate effectively and potentially pose safety concerns for passengers throughout part of the year is unethical and as of yet, no one has been held formally accountable in a meaningful way for this oversight. Not to put too fine a point on it—this is a complete mess.

The third principle has been violated as well. The city’s financial resources and physical infrastructure have not been managed in an efficient and effective manner. There have been thousands of passengers stranded without alternative modes of transportation and the unreliable system, particularly during frigid winter months, has caused harm to riders. The delays to the system have resulted in a loss to the city of over $34.4 million. The negotiations that occurred between the City of Ottawa and Rideau Transit Group were shrouded in secrecy and details were not made available to the public in alignment with the fourth principle of information accessibility.

The fifth principle of inquiries, concerns, and complaints being responded to in a timely manner has also failed to occur. To meaningfully do this it is not enough to respond with indifference. Public feedback has not only been ignored but advocacy efforts to improve the system and demonstrate to city leaders the issues firsthand have had limited impact. Feedback from the public is essential and should be incorporated into planning processes; their full participation will allow for opportunities to hold decision-makers responsible for their choices.

Emblematic of this disconnect is Mayor Jim Watson’s lack of participation in the Transit Week Challenges run by advocacy group Free Transit Ottawa. Both years he has cited his busy schedule as a restriction and that he has commitments in areas of the city that have little to no access to the transit system; as if residents do not face the same challenges every day. The Mayor’s lack of confidence in the system to allow him to do his job is reflected in the public’s lack of confidence in him to do it as well.

The sixth principle involves having financial oversight and performance reporting available to the public in plain language for public scrutiny and involvement in operations. When information has been shared it has not been done in an accessible way for non-experts and where public scrutiny has occurred there has been little response from the city. Public involvement means little if it is not meaningfully incorporated into decision-making.

The principle the city has done best to uphold is the seventh in which every new delegation of power or authority has a corresponding accountability mechanism. While this has occurred; however, more transparency is still required surround the functioning of the mechanisms.

Major infrastructure projects like the LRT will shape the City of Ottawa and its development for decades to come. In order to ensure that decision-making is in alignment with the needs of the community and will lead to long-term prosperity and growth, the city must include citizens in the process and listen to their concerns as the primary users of this infrastructure.

The City of Ottawa has outlined its own track to greater and more meaningful accountability and transparency, now it just has to get on board. That shouldn’t be asking too much, either in terms of making public transit policy, or delivering on it.

Kathryn Lemieux is a Master’s student at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, McGill University.