A public inquiry into the issues plaguing Ottawa’s light rail transit system has found both city officials and contracted companies at fault for delivering an error-ridden, unreliable system after a 16-month delay.
The inquiry’s final report on Wednesday said the city and the Rideau Transit Group consortium lost sight of the public interest amid political pressure to rush the $2.1-billion project across the finish line.
Justice William Hourigan has made 103 recommendations to fix problems caused by what his report said was “deliberate malfeasance.”
At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said he shares in the disappointment of transit riders. He said he has directed city staff to come up with an action plan to implement the recommendations and create a team that will oversee the safety and reliability of the system.
He also promised transparency, with frequent reports on construction.
“All of the recommendations in this report could be adopted, and that still would not guarantee perfect performance of Stage 1, nor will it ensure that Stage 2 will be implemented without any challenges,” said Sutcliffe.
The report said two instances stood out as “egregious violations of the public trust”: the project’s unrealistic deadlines and the fact that information about testing was withheld from the public.
Hourigan wrote that the timelines for the project, including its initial completion date of May 2018, were “entirely unrealistic.”
As a commercial tactic, he wrote, it was a “failure” because the deliberate communication of “unachievable dates” did nothing to improve the transit group’s standing with local business. Instead, it only served to accelerate mistrust.
“More fundamentally, it represented a troubling lack of concern for the public nature of the project and the interests of the people of Ottawa,” wrote Hourigan.
He added that leaders “seemed to have given no thought to the fact that the provision of this misinformation adversely impacted the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people” — and that was a betrayal of citizens’ trust.
Critical information about the trial running of the light rail system was withheld from the city council and only provided to the mayor’s office and the chair of the city’s transit commission, the inquiry also found.
The report accuses then-mayor Jim Watson and other senior staff of deliberately misleading and spinning the public.
“Because the conduct was wilful and deliberate, it leads to serious concerns about the good faith of senior city staff and raises questions about where their loyalties lie,” the report said. “It is difficult to imagine the successful completion of any significant project while these attitudes prevail within the municipal government.”
Hourigan added that he found the conduct of former city manager Steve Kanellakos the “most troubling.”
Kanellakos stepped down from his position on Monday afternoon, saying he felt it was time for someone else to take the lead to implement the report’s recommendations.
“I don’t know what the report findings or recommendations will be as we will not receive an advance copy,” Kanellakos wrote in a letter addressed to city staff.
“I do believe, based on the line of questioning and approach taken by the Commission, that the report will be critical of the city of Ottawa and city staff.”
Hourigan concluded that the conduct of senior city staff and the mayor “irreparably compromised” council’s oversight. “Deliberate malfeasance is unacceptable in a public project.”
He wrote that evidence from Watson, Kanellakos and others did not “withstand scrutiny,” and the inquiry “does not accept it as a truthful explanation of what motivated the failure to communicate with council.”
The inquiry learned that there was a private WhatsApp chat group between Watson, Kanellakos, Coun. Allan Hubley and John Manconi, the former general manager of OC Transpo, where they discussed critical information about the system that was not shared with council.
The new mayor said he has learned from his predecessor’s mistakes.
“My intention is to collaborate with city council and not withhold information from them,” said Sutcliffe.
The myriad issues with the system went far beyond the failures of communication on deadlines and testing.
Delays during construction posed a significant threat to the deadline and increased pressure to open the system early, the inquiry found.
Inexperience in handling a project of such magnitude also contributed to the issues that arose, including two derailments in August and September 2021, the report said. It adds that the Rideau Transit Group’s relationship with the city was “adversarial” at critical stages during the construction and maintenance of the system.
Hourigan wrote that infrastructure projects will not succeed unless those involved “understand that their first duty is to the public.”
He said governments must address the challenges that come when a city with little experience with major infrastructure undertakes such a large project.
One of his recommendations is for the Ontario provincial government to investigate how to develop the skills and capabilities to lead large infrastructure projects at the municipal level.
The province’s transportation minister, Caroline Mulroney, said in a statement that her government will continue to make sure Ontario taxpayers and transit riders get the service they deserve.
“As a funding partner, provincial taxpayers deserve accountability for their money,” said Mulroney.
Mulroney’s thoughts were echoed by Dominic LeBlanc, the federal minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities.
“These are large projects involving, in many cases, billions of dollars. We expect there to be rigorous oversight,” said LeBlanc.
Yasir Naqvi, the Liberal MP for Ottawa Centre, told reporters the community wants a transit system that works.
“We need to make sure that the kind of mistakes and the ineffectiveness we saw in the system does not get repeated again,” said Naqvi, adding that all three levels of government have invested to expand the rail system beyond the city’s downtown core.