February 12, 2019 11:29 am
Updated: February 13, 2019 12:25 pm

Will Ottawa get keys to LRT on March 31? With weeks to go, RTG and OC Transpo have conflicting answers

A photograph of the Blair LRT station, the final stop at the eastern tip of the Confederation line. The head of OC Transpo says he's "highly skeptical" the consortium building the LRT will meet its deadline of March 31, 2019. The Rideau Transit Group, however, says it's "confident" it will.

City of Ottawa
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Forty-seven days before the city is supposed to get the keys to the $2.1-billion Confederation LRT line, the man in charge of Ottawa’s public transit network and the CEO of the consortium building the light rail system openly disagree on whether the Rideau Transit Group (RTG) will make its March 31 deadline — the third deadline that’s been set to date.

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From OC Transpo’s perspective, there’s “no probability” RTG will make that end-of-March due date, transportation services general manager John Manconi told Mayor Jim Watson and councillors at the city’s finance and economic development committee meeting on Tuesday.

READ MORE: Rideau Transit Group set to hand over control of LRT to city by end of March

But RTG’s CEO Peter Lauch insisted he’s “confident” the consortium, which already missed two target dates in 2018, will turn over the highly-anticipated and delayed system by deadline.

“We’re not contemplating another date other than the 31st of March right now,” said Lauch, who attended the meeting at city hall at Mayor Jim Watson’s request. “The next few weeks are very tough. … I’m optimistic but I’m a realist as well. We have to make sure we trend towards zero uncertainties over the next couple of weeks.”

Manconi said he’s happy to be proven wrong but said he remains “highly skeptical” that could happen without the city accepting an LRT system with a “reduced service level.”

“If they make it [and] pass all the tests, that’s great. If they don’t, we’re in a different predicament,” Manconi said.

WATCH (May 2, 2018): Sneak peek of the Ottawa LRT

Watson, who in November said he felt “great confidence” the east-west line would be operational by March 31, said after the meeting that RTG’s to-do list hasn’t shrunk enough since then to make him share the confidence Lauch expressed on Tuesday.

“I hope they’re right. … I don’t think they are,” Watson told reporters.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson speaks to reporters on Feb. 12, 2019, after receiving a status update on Ottawa’s yet-to-be-completed LRT system, while OC Transpo general manager John Manconi looks on.

Beatrice Britneff / Global News

RTG wasn’t fined for missing its first deadline of May 24, 2018, but was fined $1 million for missing its second deadline of Nov. 2, 2018. The consortium will be fined another $1 million if it misses its third deadline, a penalty Lauch did not dispute when Watson brought it up during the meeting.

What remains in dispute, however, is whether the city or RTG should be on the hook for the steep costs the city has incurred throughout the months-long delay. Watson told reporters he expects this financial disagreement is one that will have to be resolved in court.

What’s left to do?

At committee on Tuesday, Manconi went through eight requirements he said are “critical” for RTG to achieve before turning over the Confederation line to OC Transpo.

READ MORE: Launch of Ottawa’s LRT delayed until 2019

RTG has less than seven weeks to get through the items on that list, which include:

  • having all 34 trains in the LRT’s fleet fully tested and approved for use (according to the city, only 14 of those have received a final sign-off; 10 are at a lower level of completion; and the remaining 10 are incomplete or have issues);
  • station occupancy;
  • tunnel ventilation system tests;
  • a number of tests of monitoring, control and power systems;
  • sign-off on all documents by the city’s safety auditor; and
  • an end-to-end practice run (RTG is not contractually obligated to do this but it has committed to it).

Manconi said the eight elements are “tracking very well” but they’re not “closed off.”

An image of the Rideau LRT station in downtown Ottawa.

City of Ottawa

Before handing over the keys to the system, RTG is contractually obligated to finish all project construction and site work, and complete all testing and commissioning of the LRT system, including a 12-day, consecutive trial run. The system must score 12 “perfect” days, Manconi said; if there are any problems, his team sets back the clock.

“The key indication for trending in the right direction is when we have 15 double trains running from (Tunney’s Pasture) to Blair. That, in plain English is what the service will deliver to our customers,” Manconi told reporters after the meeting. “So while there’s a lot of check marks … the true test of how the whole system operates as one integrated, seamless system is when you have those 15 double trains running consistently, throughout the day, from Tunney’s to Blair.”

Lauch said RTG intends to begin the 12-day trial run in the second week of March, a statement that triggered expressions of surprise on some city councillors’ faces.

READ MORE: Seth Rogen offers to be voice of Ottawa LRT, but local actor already got the job

As for the 13 LRT stations, Manconi said the exteriors and interiors of all stops, from Blair to Tunney’s Pasture, are “virtually complete.”

When pressed by reporters about the delays, Watson said he is disappointed Ottawa’s LRT system has blown past several deadlines, but he pointed to other major transit projects, past and present, across Canada — all of which, he said, were or are delayed.

“Some people will say, ‘Well, that’s not much of an excuse.’ It’s a reality, we have to deal with reality,” Watson said. “These systems are not taken off the shelf, they’re very unique to our situation.”

‘They have my apology,’ Manconi says of OC Transpo riders

If the LRT is delayed yet again, this will mean maintaining the status quo in the transit network for another couple of weeks, or months, Watson said.

Manconi acknowledged Ottawa’s bus system is currently “stressed” and emphasized that he’s “very, very sympathetic” to transit users’ ongoing frustrations and complaints with service during the delay.

“It’s been many, many years … five detours … bus routes that got changed in anticipation of the last [target] date. I understand and I’m with them,” Manconi told reporters.

“There’s no denying our customers are getting a stressed system. There is a prize at the end of this whole journey which is a great state-of-the-art system, but I’m very, very sympathetic and they have my apology.”

READ MORE: City of Ottawa saves 50 trees in west-end park from death-by-LRT

The delays have affected the city’s plans for laying off bus drivers who will no longer be needed after the Confederation line opens. Manconi said in French that OC Transpo continues to work with the union on that matter and those drivers will be kept on until the LRT launches.

No matter when it receives the LRT system, the city will still need several weeks to prepare the Confederation line before opening the train doors to transit riders. If RTG does meet the March 31 deadline, Manconi said that would likely result in a launch day at the end of April.

Manconi told the committee the city continues to withhold two payments to RTG worth $262 million because of the ongoing delays.

Lauch did not stay after Tuesday’s meeting to speak to reporters.

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