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The Ottawa Light Rail Transit (LRT) Commission's final report, released at the end of November, had harsh words for the handling of the project – “deliberate malfeasance” among them.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

In 2010, when Jim Watson was campaigning to become mayor of Ottawa, he pledged that a new $2.1-billion light rail transit line would get built on time and on budget.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2019. The project looked like it was on budget, but that was the end of the good news. The opening of the LRT, which had already struggled through problems that included a large sinkhole near Parliament Hill, was more than a year late. Final testing was going badly.

However, only the builders and top civic officials knew this. Mr. Watson talked with senior city staff on a private WhatsApp group – the existence of which emerged this year during a public inquiry. The testing standards had to be reduced so the system could squeak out a passing grade, even though, as the inquiry’s final report recently detailed, it was clear there would be “significant disruptions for riders.”

The opening of the LRT was a disaster. The 12-kilometre line starts west of downtown, tunnels underneath it, and runs to the city’s east side. There was a plague of problems, from jammed doors to cracked wheels. Service was shut down repeatedly and, later, there were two derailments. No one was hurt, but the second incident forced the closing of the entire LRT for nearly two months.

The system this year, finally, is working well. A major expansion, $4.7-billion to extend the LRT east, west and south, is under way: behind schedule, but moving along. For all the problems, the investment in transit will serve Canada’s sprawled capital city well for decades to come – but there are key lessons to be learned for builders of all large, complicated projects from the Ottawa LRT saga.

Of the many things that went wrong, there were two key errors, mistakes typical in multibillion-dollar projects. The first was optimism bias, as backers exaggerated the good and ignored the bad. The second, as is too often the case in Canada, was a tendency to secrecy.

The public inquiry report, released at the end of November, had harsh words – “deliberate malfeasance” among them. Its conclusion fingered the private consortium that designed and built the system, Rideau Transit Group (ACS Infrastructure Canada, EllisDon and SNC-Lavalin), for its “entirely unrealistic” completion dates. Mr. Watson and senior civic staff were lambasted for “nondisclosure of vital information” and “outright misrepresentation.”

There were other big issues. Ottawa “elected to gamble with unproven technology,” in the trains it chose. The public-private partnership saved Ottawa from added costs – more than $100-million for the sinkhole – but it meant it had little control over the project. Meanwhile, contractors were poorly co-ordinated, meaning various systems ended up out of sync, and plans for maintenance were inadequate.

Problems sprung from optimism bias and secrecy. The $2.1-billion budget, which was advertised as sacrosanct, was in fact just a preliminary estimate. The inquiry heard how the effort to fulfill Mr. Watson’s budget promise led to cheaper design choices that in part set the stage for the problem-plagued opening.

After delays, pressure to put the LRT in service mounted. So in the crucial testing phase, in 2019, obvious problems were waved away in the hope they could be dealt with later, never mind that there had been no winter-specific testing on the track – useful, one would think, in Ottawa.

Instead, the driving force in the last year or so of work was a narrow focus on getting it done. Between the private consortium looking to get paid and Mr. Watson and the team desperate to open the LRT, the inquiry found, “they prioritized the swift completion of the project.”

In retrospect, there should have been a delay for more testing in 2019. That would have been embarrassing, garnering a flurry of negative stories and complaints, but it would have saved much grief. Secrecy made that bad decision possible, since city council was never provided the full picture. If more had been on the table for the public to see, things could have turned out differently.

Big projects are never easy; challenges will always arise. There will be literal, or at least metaphorical, sinkholes. Vows of projects finishing on time and on budget are as easy to make as they are common.

But the realities of complicated projects can run over such simple refrains. Transparency is key to avoid the worst pitfalls.

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