The city of Ottawa doesn’t expect the Confederation light rail transit (LRT) line to launch until sometime in 2019.
This latest setback comes on top of a six-month contract extension that had already delayed the expected opening of the new electrified, public train system into late 2018.
The city’s finance and economic development committee heard Monday that the consortium building the 13-stop, east-west LRT line, the Rideau Transit Group (RTG), told the city within the last three weeks it could not meet all of its contractual obligations – including all the necessary safety testing – by the agreed-upon Nov. 2 deadline, which the city already allowed to be pushed from the original May 24 target date.
John Manconi, the city’s manager of transportation services, told councillors RTG asked the city to cut down the trains’ trial runs and proposed launching a smaller LRT fleet and only partially opening certain lines or stations, like the problem-plagued, underground Rideau station in downtown Ottawa.
But Manconi said the city has rejected all of those requests from RTG, arguing these concessions would jeopardize the operation of the $2.1-billion system — a risk the city is “not prepared to take,” he insisted.
“The city has been firm in its position in that we will hold RTG accountable to its contractual obligations,” Manconi said. “The options put forward by RTG transfers the risks to the city on many fronts including operationally, reputationally, and could potentially lead to additional costs.”
“At the end of the day, you’re building a light rail system for the customers and they need to get what they were promised.”
Manconi told councillors this latest update from RTG only came after the city had a third party conduct an independent assessment of RTG’s progress ahead of the Nov. 2 deadline. (This date was never meant to be a launch date, but rather the day that RTG would hand over the keys to the LRT system.)
The audit was completed on Aug. 17, about four days after the city released a Confederation Line memo stating RTG felt confident it was on track to meet the target Nov. 2 date.
The independent assessment did not find evidence to support that claim, Manconi told councillors, and so the city “called out” the consortium. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told reporters after Monday’s committee that he called a meeting with the heads of the organizations involved on Aug. 29.
“I wanted to go through a deep dive because I was obviously seeing the condition of stations … and I was not satisfied that they were going to meet that (Nov. 2) date,” said Watson, who chairs the finance and economic development committee.
Manconi said the city subsequently learned from RTG that parts had gone missing, including “hard” components of the train. While those parts were ultimately remanufactured or rerouted by suppliers, Manconi said, what’s still missing are two “critical” computer modules that need to be installed in the last two of the 34 LRT trains.
In his presentation on Monday morning, Manconi said those modules communicate with the control system, or the “brain” that controls the whole LRT network. The LRT schedules are pre-loaded to that system, he explained, which then tells the trains where they should be on the track at what time and keeps them safely spaced apart.
“They are trying to either get those parts manufactured or find them,” Manconi said of the two missing parts. “I’m a little dumbfounded as to how we can’t get an extra two computer modules.”
After denying RTG’s request to adjust its contract, Manconi said the consortium called him late on Friday, Sept. 7, and said it would aim to complete all of its contract requirements by Nov. 30. Based on this proposed date, Manconi said he estimates all the track, vehicle and computer system testing that remains to be done couldn’t be completed in full “until the new year.”
“My hope is we’re going to launch this train in (the first quarter) of 2019 … but that may change,” he said. “RTG may miraculously show up with parts and things may shift.”
Manconi told reporters he and city manager Steve Kanellakos have yet to settle on a new, formal completion date but said that discussion will happen soon. Manconi insisted they will “hold their feet to the fire.”
“I think they want me to flinch and I’m not flinching. I’m not biting,” he said, in response to a question from Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais.
Global News has contacted RTG for comment but has not yet heard back.
Councillors, mayor disappointed, frustrated with second delay
Most of the councillors sitting on the committee expressed deep disappointment and frustration with news of the delay, particularly Blais, who chairs the city’s transit commission.
“I’m pretty angry, actually, right now,” said the two-term councillor, who is running for re-election this fall.
Watson, who is running to secure a third consecutive term as mayor, told reporters he shares councillors’ disappointment. He said he’s “unhappy” and “regrets” the system won’t be open for Ottawa residents by the end of the year as planned, but emphasized the city refuses to take any shortcuts because of the nature and scope of Ottawa’s conversion to LRT.
“My call is that first and foremost, we have to accept a system that is 100 per cent safe and 100 per cent tested,” the mayor said. “We’re not going to compromise on safety for a predetermined date in the calendar.”
If it doesn’t make the Nov. 2 deadline, RTG will be fined $1 million, Manconi confirmed when councillors asked about possible penalties for the delay. The city will also withhold two remaining payments to the consortium totalling about $262 million and seek recovery of its costs, he said.
Manconi said the city has not paid RTG “a cent” since its last obligatory payment in March.
Should the city and RTG agree on a different, third deadline, RTG would be fined another $1 million if it were to miss that date as well, he said. RTG was not fined $1 million for missing the original May 24 deadline.
‘Significant’ amount work left to do in Rideau station
While Manconi reported that many above-ground stations are nearing the finish line, councillors learned that a “significant amount” of construction, mechanical and electrical work remains to be done at the underground Rideau station downtown, whose development was slowed by a massive sinkhole in 2016.
“Rideau continues to be the station that we’re carefully monitoring,” Manconi said.
A picture of Rideau station included in Manconi’s presentation shows a significant amount of temporary scaffolding still in place, which Manconi said “gives an indication of … the scope and scale of what’s left to do.”
The seven stations east of Rideau station, from uOttawa to Blair, are nearly completed, Manconi said, and the city is looking at recruiting cleaners to “get everything polished up.”
In response to a question from Blais, the transportation manager said there’s nothing about this latest Confederation Line delay that he believes will impact the construction of the Stage 2 LRT.
Impact on bus routes, fares and drivers
Manconi also told councillors that OC Transpo doesn’t plan to make any further changes to Ottawa’s bus routes and schedules until the LRT system is live. The fall 2018 schedule went into effect on Sept. 2, implementing changes to more than two dozen routes in anticipation of the launch of LRT.
But some bus riders have since complained that some of those changes, including those to the number 11 bus, have left certain routes inaccessible.
In response to a request from Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, Manconi said he will first determine a new LRT deadline with RTG and, based on that, look into whether the city can “walk back” some route changes that are posing problems, if necessary.
Manconi told reporters OC Transpo customers remain a “number one priority” and he sympathizes with any frustration caused by the LRT upheaval.
“I understand their pain, I understand what it takes to have a route change imposed (on) you if you’re depending on that for your commute every day,” he said.
Manconi also said news of the delay affects the city’s plans for laying off bus drivers that will no longer be needed after the Confederation Line opens.
Manconi said the city will be asking drivers who received pink slips to “stick around longer” and will work through this with the union.
Mayor Watson and councillors on Monday also argued in favour of not making any changes to transit fares until the LRT is open.