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Light Rail Fail: Interview with Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden

Chantal Sundaram

October 20, 2021
Socialist Worker spoke with Joel Harden, Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa Centre about what is behind the problems with the Ottawa LRT project.
SW: The first phase of the new Light Rail Transit (LRT) line that was supposed to transform commutes and provide cleaner public transport to Ottawa has been plagued with problems since it opened before the pandemic. It has now made provincial news as the trains remain shut down indefinitely. What has this debacle meant for Ottawa residents over the last couple of years?
Joel: A lot of us had a premonition that this would not go well despite the optimism at the opening. Within weeks of being operational they were blaming riders for doors not working, for problems the train was having. 
And as we got into the winter you had significant problems with the train functioning in the Ottawa climate: blowing snow distracted sensors, threw trains off, stalled them; parts of the train were breaking, the wheels connecting the trains to the track were flattening or having defects. 
There have been five derailments on this LRT since it opened a year and a half ago. The most recent was September 19: it was caused by a gearbox becoming unglued from where it sits on a post and the train struck it, dragged it, and derailed – and this happened not far from a bridge. I think for a lot of us who care about public transit and want it to be part of Ottawa's response to the climate emergency, this was the straw that broke the camel's back. We bought a lemon. 
It has functioned better during the pandemic because fewer people are using it: you haven't had the same volume due to people working from home. I think at the end of the day this derailment has shown the problematic way in which this project has been procured and built on a public-private partnership model where the City does not have the means to understand what's gone wrong in the contract.    
SW: All along, the public-private partnership (P3) with Rideau Transit Group (RTG) to procure, build and run the line, and the corporate veil it hides behind, has been the subject of controversy. What can you tell us about that?
Joel: I'll give you an anecdote about how bad it is: Councillor Catherine McKenney, one of the colleagues I'm proud to work with here, one of four City Councillors in Ottawa Centre, asked to see the $5 million per month maintenance contract, given how RTG has clearly not been able to deliver service. 
What Catherine was told was that the only way that she could see this contract was in the presence of the City's lawyer, a paper copy on a desk, and no notes could be taken, no photographs could be taken, there was no electronic copy that could be taken away for scrutiny. 
We have been teleported back to 1940 or 1950 where some lawyer working for the mayor has to peer over your shoulder while you try to understand what your city just agreed to, to build the biggest public transport project Ottawa's had in decades. The subcontractors to RTG include SNC Lavalin, which has a history of significant corruption, scandals and gaffes in almost any contract they've had anywhere in the world. 
All of us, myself included, have lost faith in the City to be able to assess what's gone wrong. That led to a movement for a judicial inquiry, which is something you can do under the Municipal Act in Ontario if you have lost faith in your municipality as a city councillor. You can ask for an independent judicial panel to inquire into whatever has gone wrong. In the City of Toronto this happened with the procurement of computers for City of Toronto Councillor offices, and there was a $9 or $10 million inquiry into costs, alleged improprieties, etc. 
Councillor McKenney and Councillor Caroline Meehan co-sponsored this resolution for a judicial inquiry into the LRT. At the Council meeting last week, the mayor intervened in the debate and substituted the motion for a judicial inquiry (which had been tabled with notice) for a different motion: for the City of Ottawa's own Auditor General to inquire into the LRT. The difference is the Auditor General reports to the mayor, and it's not a public inquiry. They don't have the power to compel people to depute before them so they can't force any of the private sector partners to depute. 
A lot of us were upset about this, but the mayor runs a tight ship in the city. A councillor who questioned the mayor's procedure literally had her microphone turned off in the middle of the debate. 
Sometimes I look at the way this city is run, and I feel like I'm living in Las Vegas in the 1950s. You see all these very powerful private sector partners at the table, and that's what it was like. And now the mayor has thwarted any democratic debate. But it's not over. 
SW: On October 6, you stood during question period to ask the government to support your call for the province’s auditor general to investigate the procurement of the rail line. Why are you asking for a provincial audit?
Joel: When I was down at the Legislature and I had a question in question period, I asked the government to comment on the absolute lemon we've inherited. The second part of the question was: would they join me in asking the Auditor General of Ontario, who has significant powers to compel all kinds of people to be forthcoming in disclosures, to investigate this matter.
I was interrupted by heckling. The conservatives were yelling at the Liberals because MPP Stephen Blais was sitting in the Liberal caucus, and he was the Chair of the Transit Commission when the LRT was built. The Tories were yelling "it's Stephen Blais' fault" and the Liberals were yelling back "no, you should answer the question." It was the “red team” vs. the “blue team” and the actual issue was being completely thwarted.
The Liberals who started this P3 mess and the Conservatives who inherited it both are not taking responsibility for it. So really what we need is for the public to insist on accountability and I really hope that the Auditor General does do an independent inquiry because I think we're going to find some pretty interesting revelations about why Ottawa City Councillors can't find out what's in this deal.
SW: The question of the corporate veil came out even at the beginning of this project, before the derailments, due to RTG's extreme secrecy. That was placed on RTG in particular, but can you generalize about what all these P3s impose on governments who enter into them?
Joel: The people who sell these P3s to governments (I've read their presentations) sell them as low-cost options so governments can take on major procurement projects for bridges, hospitals, transit systems. And they won't have to draw up the debt to pay for them during their mandate, it won't appear on their own balance sheet. That's the way they sell it, but what happens when they don't work is that the government's actually the one on the hook with the public. There's a whole lot in the fine print.   
The P3 Brampton Hospital is legendary for this. Representatives in Brampton tell me that when they have tried to find out why this hospital costs so much to run, relative to other hospitals, and yet they can't work with as many patients, they can't attract staff, they can't deal with significant problems, they run into wall after wall. Like with RTG and the LRT, it's a company acting like its proprietary corporate interest matters more than the public good. 
I would say in all fairness that RTG is not unusual. But it is galling to realize $1.8 billion, between the City and the Province, has been forked out for this project. After all that significant public investment, that comes from working people paying their taxes so we can create public services for the greater good, we have this level of secrecy. It doesn't give you much faith in the people doing this work for the City and the Province. 
There are people working for the current Conservative government and the previous Liberal government who have made a living selling these things, and it's always around low cost, low obligation, private sector innovation. My colleagues in Toronto talk about the Eglinton crosstown, which is another P3: way beyond budget, non-functional, and has created a whole lot of headaches. 
We are living in an environment, a world economy, of extremely low borrowing rates. It's not back-breaking for governments to borrow credit to build major procurement projects right now. So they should do it, and they should control the process. Cost of course matters, but so does transparency and making sure people can deliver on the obligations they've made to make the projects work. 
I think there are no less than three current lawsuits by subcontractors against RTG right now. I'm not saying that publicly procured systems are perfect, but I am saying that at least we can get to the bottom of what goes wrong.
We definitely want the LRT to work, it is critical to our response to the climate emergency. I look at every day we waste as we watch RTG continue to fail is another day we're stranding someone from getting to work on time, someone trying to pick up their kids from daycare; I hear stories from people crowded on these R1 buses that have been substituted for the failing LRT, and it doesn't sound like a very safe environment to me. We have to fix this.
SW: Ottawa's mayor argued that a judicial inquiry would be too expensive and just make a bunch of lawyers rich, but it would have been public, unlike an Auditor General's investigation - by either Ottawa's AG or even the Provincial AG. We need public pressure here but there aren't a lot of ways for it to enter. Can you comment on that?
Joel: The Ottawa AG reports to the mayor first, and everything will be vetted before the public knows anything. The judicial inquiry would have had to have public hearings and make their findings public, and that's why we were pushing for this. The mayor shutting off a councillor's microphone during debate shows how terrified he is of public scrutiny. He believes they need an in-house investigation in order to present the findings. 
They can talk about costs all they want: they've given us a stranded asset that's worth $1.8 billion. $10 million spent investigating this, if it's done right, is a good use of public money as far as I'm concerned. Is there a particular subcontractor that's a problem? Is there a part of the contract we have to opt out of? Just get to the bottom of what has to change. I have completely lost faith in the City's ability to investigate themselves.
SW: What would be the role of the public if a provincial audit takes place? Usually that process is fairly secretive too, without a process to make public submissions.
Joel: True, very true. It's not a perfect alternative. But what I can say is that any idea we would get for the AG to investigate, we would forward directly to her, and I've said this publicly. So if there is any information readers of Socialist Worker/ have, questions they want posed, matters they want investigated, send it to me and we will make sure it gets sent to her.
SW: One question is about blame: first it was the riders who were blamed, but also the trains themselves, which were not properly winterized because Ottawa was a guinea pig for trains that had never been winterized before. Who is responsible for that?
Joel: It's got to be the people who are leading procurement – these Alton Spirit Trains. We were told we were getting a nordic-tested train, winter-ready trains, but blowing snow sets off the sensors causing havoc. We were sold a bill of goods, and we need to know from RTG, but also from Alston and all the subcontractors, what's actually the truth. Somebody with the power to rip open all those documents, without being filtered through the Mayor's office, is going to get us a credible answer.
SW: What do you think we can learn from this debacle about public-private partnerships in general, and to ensure such important projects don’t fail in future?
What do we need to do to ensure that P3s don't continue to be relied on, and what role can we all play?
Joel: If people reading this story have personal anecdotes to share with me, those matter. If you've been stranded from work, picking up your kids, if this has interrupted your life in any way, I seriously need to know about that so I can continue to talk about that, so we can continue to fight for a just outcome to this. 
For any government, including an NDP government, that would consider a P3 procurement model for any kind of public service, this is not just a cautionary tale, it is an instructive tale about why this is not a choice. 
We have another situation here in Ottawa where the new public library we're building is having mass cost overruns - and it's another public-private partnership. They're claiming the overruns are due to increased construction costs, but where's the evidence for that? We're just given an “assertion” from the City leadership. 
Public procurement processes are critical not just to get people from point A to point B but for the climate emergency and for equity - because who disproportionately uses public transit? It's people who need cost-effective ways to get around town. And municipal decisions around procurement at the local level can have a huge impact on the climate, as many studies have shown.
This should be telling anyone, not just in Ottawa but anywhere, that we should not be pursuing P3s: they make rich people very rich but they don't necessarily give us what we need. And, in our case, we're literally left with a 1.8 billion dollar stranded asset that doesn't work. We should be ripping up this contract and figuring out how we can fix this train - and get it brought back into the public realm.

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