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P3 2023: How did Ottawa’s LRT project go off the rails? Panel explores lessons learned

Angela Gismondi
P3 2023: How did Ottawa’s LRT project go off the rails? Panel explores lessons learned
ANGELA GISMONDI - Marc-Olivier Ranger, corporate secretary, VIA HFR, and Matthew Slade, vice-president of rail operations with EllisDon, discussed the Ottawa LRT inquiry report during a session at the P3 Conference in Toronto.

A session at the recent P3 conference examined how the Ottawa LRT went off the rails and, more importantly, lessons learned from the project.

“The common thread running through this report and the recommendations is a refocus on the third ‘P’, that is partnership,” said Matthew Bernardo, a partner with Gowling WLG, who moderated the discussion.

“Our aim today is not a post-mortem analysis of the project. That is done in the report. Rather we will focus the discussion on what can we as public and private sector actors do to improve the delivery of infrastructure and what lessons can we take from this project looking forward.”

In the session, entitled Taking Lessons from the Ottawa LRT Inquiry — A Discussion on the Way Forward, Matthew Slade, vice-president of rail operations with EllisDon, and Marc-Olivier Ranger, corporate secretary with VIA HFR, discussed the details of the project, as well as the final report of the Ottawa LRT Public Inquiry released Nov. 30, 2022 by Justice William Hourigan.

The report is important for both the public and private sector because it provides recommendations on how to improve the delivery of public infrastructure, Bernardo stated.

“The report includes 103 recommendations covering the entire span of the project from pre-procurement through operations and maintenance,” he said.

One of the major themes is “the importance of communication on a project between the partners broadly with the stakeholders and also with the private sector. Communication is critical to efficiently bring these projects to a successful conclusion.”

The Ottawa LRT Public Inquiry found there were persistent failures in leadership, partnership and communications in the construction and maintenance of the project.

Hourigan also found the City of Ottawa and the private consortium, Rideau Transit Group (RTG), lost sight of the public interest during the project.

“It was unconscionable that RTG and its main subcontractor knowingly gave the city inaccurate information about when they would finish building the LRT,” the report stated.

The speakers were asked what improvements the private and public sector can implement to help preserve the public trust.

“Communication has been a big part of the discussion around Ottawa, particularly for the media, from the public and what their expectations were from council, what council’s expectations were from the project team,” Slade said. “From the construction side and the delivery side, from the city’s perspective, I think there were challenges with the contractual position and the fact that not all parties were allowed to communicate openly to the public or to the media. That’s a challenge which needs consideration for future projects.”

He said communication between the parties was strained.

“A lot of that comes down to relationship, which is the third ‘P,’” Slade said. “I think it’s difficult with projects like Ottawa and other projects with that scale and size.

“These are very long projects from conception, through procurement, through construction, into operations. I think there is a need for communication to be different at different stages of the project. That is something that needs to be learned and understood. The same people that start a project are not the people who are going to finish a project.”

Being open and honest is key, he added.

“I think it’s difficult when you set off on a path and you make bold statements on how it’s going to be and how it’s going to happen and then it starts to deviate from that. It’s a challenge to communicate that and keep everyone happy,” Slade stated.

Ranger pointed out P3s in general are controversial and there is an erosion of trust that can occur for a number of reasons, including mismanagement of funds and misinformation or disinformation around the project.

“When it comes to large, complex infrastructure projects, the larger they become the more you have to think through how you are maybe going to maintain public trust,” Ranger said.

He also shared some advice with the public sector, particularly when dealing with projects involving taxpayer dollars.

“Don’t underestimate the scrutiny you will face,” he said. “The moment you put a number out there, it’s an anchor.”

Change is part of the DNA of a larger infrastructure project, he added, and Slade agreed.

“Change is inevitable,” Slade said. “These contracts are written such that change can be managed, to allow for change. People shouldn’t be afraid of change…You need to be able to adapt and change without being too restrictive.”

Ranger said having a good relationship between the public and private sector is important as is “selecting a partner that will work collaboratively and help develop solutions.”

Public safety was also discussed.

According to the inquiry, Ottawa City Council was not told the testing criteria for the LRT was lowered to allow it to pass its final testing phase.

“A soft launch is critical for these types of projects because it gives everybody an opportunity to learn how to use the system,” said Slade.

Overall, the inquiry was a good thing for all P3 projects, said Slade, adding the delivery model is not the right fit for every project.

“Transit projects, I don’t think they necessarily lend themselves to that model.”

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