By Sam Hersh
The September 19th light rail train (LRT) derailment near Tremblay Station in Ottawa, which has been the subject of many news stories in the past several weeks, was not inevitable. Many across the city had warned about something like this happening, giving the city ample time to set up necessary precautions.
Residents, organizations, and even some councillors had called upon the city to hold emergency meetings since the previous derailment on August 8. Yet they were promptly dismissed and accused of feigning their outrage and skepticism about our transit system by Mayor Jim Watson and Transit Commission Chair Allan Hubley. In a typical move, Watson dismissed a motion by Councillor Jeff Leiper for an emergency meeting to discuss the derailments as “political theatre,” according to CBC News. In retrospect, such skepticism and outrage now seems well-deserved.
From funky smells to a massive sinkhole to shoddy maintenance work, our LRT system has had an endless litany of issues even before its opening in 2019, most of which are linked to one issue — our P3 deal with the Rideau Transit Group (RTG).
According to our mayor and his defenders on council, we should be happy that we (barely) even have a transit system at all.
A P3, or public-private partnership, is when a government or public agency contracts out work to a private sector company or a conglomeration of private corporations. The private partner typically incurs the majority of upfront costs, with the expectation of regaining these funds and profiting from the long-term operations of the project.
P3s emerged out of the neoliberal turn towards privatization and market-based solutions throughout the ’90s and 2000s across Canada. Governments touted them as a way to build infrastructure without increasing public debt, where the private sector would bear the risk and deliver better results. This ultimately ended up with an increase in fees on the user and push towards almost full privatization of services. Since 1991, 50% of all P3 projects have been in Ontario.
Proponents of P3s claim that they are superior to public sector projects because they are less expensive, more innovative, speedier, and more transparent than public service delivery. In reality, however, the exact opposite seems to be true. Our LRT is a prime example of that, especially when it comes to cost and transparency.
On cost, the aforementioned P3 deal with Rideau Transit Group is costing taxpayers $2 billion for the next 30 years. That’s $4 to $5 million every month — and, as has been clearly demonstrated, the maintenance we have received has been less than exemplary.
As for transparency, there is none. The public has been left completely in the dark when it comes to knowing what exactly is in the contract and are not allowed to actually see the details of it. According to our mayor and his defenders on council, we should be happy that we (barely) even have a transit system at all.
The cloak of secrecy surrounding the whole process extends to the elected officials tasked with approving and overseeing it. Dissident councillors have complained that they did not even have the information they needed to approve the second stage of LRT construction. In one notable low point, city-hired lawyer Geoffrey Gilbert told Councillor Diane Deans it was “very inappropriate” for her to simply ask if the winning bid to maintain the LRT made by SNC-Lavalin had even received a passing grade on the city’s technical evaluation. (At the time SNC-Lavalin was at the centre of a series of scandals involving accusations of bribery and fraud abroad and at home.)
Unfortunately, the LRT is far from the only P3 project in our city worthy of our collective chastisement. Another stark example that comes to mind is the second-largest money pit in the city — Lansdowne Park.
Over a decade ago, the majority of city council pushed to have Lansdowne, which was once a valued public space, leased out to be redeveloped by private developers — effectively subsidizing the investments and losses of these developers in football and hockey franchises.
Ten years later, residents and the city are facing many of the same problems at Lansdowne that we see with the LRT: an unaccountable private partner, a lack of transparency, massive mismanagement, and a seemingly uncontrollable deficit.
Just as it was with the LRT, Watson and the city promised that leasing the property to the private sector (the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, in the case of Lansdowne) would lead to the city making money. Years later, however, Lansdowne has become a huge source of debt and a headache for taxpayers as well as for city officials.
Ottawa is far from alone in facing these challenges. Cities from Vancouver to Hamilton have borne the brunt of disastrous P3 infrastructure deals that ultimately end up costing taxpayers more than the initial cost because they are locked into pricey maintenance and operations contracts that could have been done in-house.
The private sector may have a role to play in certain stages of the process, but ultimately public infrastructure projects are best delivered by the public sector. They’re far less costly, expensive, and risky, and most importantly they place public interest ahead of the potential of making a quick buck.