The Perils of Public Private Partnerships and Political Cowardice

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The Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, is something of a coward.

Facing a major crisis as his signature achievement in office turns out to be a rolling pile of garbage, the mayor has repeatedly dodged accountability for the ongoing failure of the city’s new light rail system.

You, dear reader, may wonder what it matters at all how rigid or pliable the mayor of Ottawa’s spine might be.  The thing is, as municipalities are increasingly operating with little input or scrutiny from their citizens — thanks mostly to the evaporation of local news — what happened in Ottawa can easily happen where you live.

Ottawa decided to build its rail system with a Public-Private Partnership, a P3, that essentially gives an outside company the opportunity to build and then maintain for three decades the entire system.  The theory behind this is the efficiencies of the market and the private sector will be able to build and run a municipal train system better than a municipality.

The Ottawa LRT shows this to be crap.

It’s hard to know where to start with this whole mess, so let’s try from the sort-of beginning.  Last fall, the Ottawa LRT opened after months of delays, cost overruns, failed and incomplete testing, at one point a giant not-at-all-a-metaphor sinkhole, and repeated warnings the system was not going to work properly.

Before the thing even opened, city council voted to give the company — headed up by the public’s best friend, SNC-Lavalin — that built it the contract to build and maintain the second phase of the project as well.

Anyway, once the trains started running absolutely everything went to hell.  Enormous backlogs of people waiting to just get inside various stations were almost daily occurrences.  Things have not got much better since.  A fairly typical winter has wreaked havoc on the system.  Trains with squared wheels, high voltage cables being ripped out of their mooringsbroken signals because of winter weatherdoors passengers can’t look at the wrong way without causing them to malfunction, the list goes on.

It’s a catastrophe.  And no one has been fired.  No one has taken an ounce of actual responsibility for the fiasco, beyond statements of apology and frustration, least of all Mayor Watson.

I’ll give you an example that’s come to light this week: When Ottawa city council voted last year for the next phase of the project the company that runs the system didn’t meet the minimum technical requirements to bid on the project.  They won anyway and council gave them the contract.  Watson knew this before the vote, but kept it to himself.

There was a process to follow, you see.  And the process may have been harmed!  When the news broke of the SNC group’s unsuitability for the project, the mayor got a briefing not, as you might expect, to head off a potentially disastrous decision by the city to give an inept company more work it could not handle, but instead he was briefed on the fact there was a leak.

This is a true shining moment of leadership from Watson.  In a statement released Tuesday, his office said, “As the City of Ottawa was still in the active phase of the Stage 2 LRT procurement process, Mayor Watson was advised by legal counsel that breaching the confidentiality of the procurement process could damage the interests of Ottawa taxpayers,” according to CBC.

And I hate to quote this sort of gutless bafflegab any further, but it does go on in a further revealing manner, so here you go:

“Mayor Watson’s priority during this briefing … was to ensure that the Fairness Commissioner, an independent third party hired to ensure the integrity of the process … had signed off on the process and confirmed that it was fully compliant with City of Ottawa policies.  As the Fairness Commissioner had indeed signed off, Mayor Watson was satisfied that the process had been followed by staff.”

You might be thinking about what I thought when I first read this.  Something like: Wait, what? Your concern was the process?  Not the fact the contract you’re about to approve is going to a company not qualified to do the work?  Are you mad?  Reader, the mayor is indeed mad.  Mad about leaks and damaging his precious, precious process.

What the mayor has not done here, or at any time previous, is take any actual concrete responsibility for what’s going on.  Politicians made the decision to hire this company to build and maintain the train system, but damned if they’ll do anything but huff and puff about things not going well.

To illustrate my point, here are a bunch of brief quotes from the mayor: “Solve this damn door issue,” “I apologize because this level of service is not acceptable.… I’m frustrated,” (October); “To say I am furious with the poor performance of our LRT system is an understatement.  [The company] will be held to account for the problems,” (November); “It’s time to give them a real kick in the pants to smarten them up,” (Monday).  And so on.

The through line here is that the mayor is just as mad as everyone else!  But what can he do, it’s the company that’s the problem!

I haven’t even taken the time to go through the ongoing transparency issues, the blaming of the public, and just not showing up sometimes.  Or, my god, the fact two stations smell terrible, one of them like literal shit.

This is where we see the real problems with P3s metastasize.  A public transit system is a public enterprise.  But with an outside company running the show, there always is someone else to blame.

And so this week the city threatened to pull the 30-year maintenance contract from the SNC-headed consortium if they can’t, in the next three weeks, come up with a plan to fix the mess.

But fixing the mess will actually require the political leadership of the city to do its job.  Instead of leadership, Ottawa has gotten only cowardice.

Learn a lesson from this.  When infrastructure gets built in a public-private partnership, know that it’s you, the public, who will get screwed eventually.

Photo Credit: Global News

More from Robert Hiltz.     @robert_hiltz

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