LRT report should signal end of public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects, says Ontario NDP

Light rail trains prepare to depart from Blair station on Ottawa's Confederation Line, seen in a drone image taken last week. (Michel Aspirot/CBC - image credit)
Light rail trains prepare to depart from Blair station on Ottawa's Confederation Line, seen in a drone image taken last week. (Michel Aspirot/CBC - image credit)

Errors revealed in a scathing report into Ottawa's light rail transit system should push the province to stop promoting public-private partnerships for major infrastructure projects, according to Ontario's NDP, which says the deals lead to costly delays, huge bills and a lack of transparency.

Justice William Hourigan, commissioner of the public inquiry into Ottawa's LRT system, released his 664-page report on Wednesday, complete with 103 recommendations for how to prevent similar problems in the future.

It's the culmination of almost a year's work by the commission, which received a million documents, interviewed more than 90 witnesses and heard from more than 40 of them during 19 days of public hearings this past summer.

Hourigan's report also revealed a rift between the City of Ottawa and LRT builder Rideau Transit Group (RTG), which he called an underlying risk of public-private partnerships.

The arrangement allowed the city to offload the geotechnical risk associated with the LRT project to RTG, ultimately saving taxpayers $100 million.

'Limited insight or control'

However, the P3 model also "caused or contributed to several of the ongoing difficulties on the project." For example, while the city would traditionally play a more direct role in such a major construction project, it had "limited insight or control" over this one.

Hourigan also recommended that all levels of government examine whether a public-private-partnership (P3) contract model, used here for the first time in a transit project in Ontario, is appropriate.

Local NDP MPPs Joel Harden and Chandra Pasma released a statement Wednesday criticizing the P3 model.

"We see that the true results of P3 projects are a brutal lack of transparency to the public, conflicting interests from partners, and less control by a city over massive infrastructure plans," the statement read.

"We are calling on the Ford government to stop promoting disastrous P3 project delivery that subjects cities like Ottawa to costly delays and huge bills."

The statement also referenced Toronto's Eglinton Crosstown, an ongoing P3 project, saying "no other city should have to suffer the same hardship inflicted on Ottawa."

Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press
Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Companies declining P3 projects

During this summer's hearings, the inquiry heard that major construction companies have been declining P3 projects because they're unwilling to assume the significant financial risk associated with them.

"This reluctance is understandable because, in the context of significant infrastructure projects, the potential financial risk can be almost unlimited. Thus, while the City was able to transfer risk in this case, it may not be able to do so in the future or the cost to do so may be significantly higher," the report concluded.

The Ontario government, which paid $600 million of the cost for the first stage of Ottawa's LRT project, ordered the inquiry earlier this year.

Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said she and her staff would review the massive report in the coming days. She did not comment on P3s specifically, but said taxpayers "deserve accountability for their money."

"Building transit to help Ontarians get to where they need to go is a major priority for our government. Our goal is to ensure the people of Ottawa get the safe and reliable transit service they need now and in the future," read a statement from her office.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

Learn from mistakes, MPs say

Liberal MP Dominic Leblanc, who's also the federal minister of intergovernmental affairs, infrastructure and communities, told CBC the federal Liberals, who also contributed $600 million of taxpayers' dollars to the project, have not yet read the inquiry report but have "taken note" of it.

"These are large projects involving in many cases billions of dollars. We expect there to be rigorous oversight. We work with partners, mainly provincial, who have in many cases the substantial responsibility in terms of oversight, municipal partners as well. We'll be looking at that," said Leblanc.

"I'm always looking at ways to ensure we are spending taxpayers' dollars in the best way possible."

Local MP Yasir Naqvi also said he hadn't read anything about the final report, but repeated that governments should learn from the recommendations and "ensure that those mistakes are not made ever again."

Former Ottawa city councillor Jenna Sudds, who is now a Liberal MP, refused to comment on the report.