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The City of Ottawa’s issues with private-sector construction consortiums are being closely watched by cities across the country.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

New documents reveal the City of Ottawa awarded a $1.6-billion light-rail transit contract to SNC-Lavalin even though city officials warned the bid was fatally flawed and should be rejected.

The city released the documents around 9 p.m. (ET) Thursday evening at the end of a busy local news day in which city officials were on the defensive over a host of problems with another LRT line that opened to the public in September.

The system, called the Confederation Line, runs east and west with a tunnel through the downtown. That line has faced a range of problems, including broken switches and malfunctioning doors. Public complaints spiked up this week when the number of trains in service dropped after several were pulled out of service for maintenance.

The City of Ottawa’s issues with private-sector construction consortiums are being closely watched by cities across the country, as several large municipalities are also expanding their light-rail and subway networks. The federal government has reserved billions of dollars for public transit projects over the coming decade and is telling provinces they must identify specific projects by the end of 2021 or the money will be transferred directly to municipalities through the federal gas tax fund.

In Ottawa, the new all-electric Confederation Line connects to the existing north-south Trillium Line, a diesel-powered line that opened in 2001 and runs through the Carleton University campus. Construction is under way to extend both lines through what the city calls Stage 2 of its LRT system.

The 16-kilometre Trillium Line extension, which includes a connection to the airport, was awarded to a consortium led by SNC-Lavalin in March, 2019.

Later that month, CBC News reported that SNC-Lavalin won the Trillium Line contract even though it fell short of the minimum technical score required.

The city acknowledged in August that the Montreal-based company missed the 70-per-cent threshold, while two other bids exceeded the cutoff.

A review of the contracting process by the city’s Auditor-General, released in November, found city staff acted within the rules by allowing the SNC-Lavalin bid to continue to the next phase, which focused on cost.

In the end, the SNC-Lavalin bid came out with the highest combined score.

City officials said in a statement Thursday that officials met with SNC-Lavalin to “resolve all technical concerns noted during the technical evaluation process” prior to awarding the contract.

The October, 2018, documents released this week reveal for the first time that the issues with SNC-Lavalin’s bid were substantial.

The city’s evaluation team documents for SNC-Lavalin include a section divided into strengths and weaknesses, with weaknesses vastly outnumbering the strengths.

Among the findings: The bid appeared to misunderstand that the line features diesel rather than electric trains, was poorly written, lacked detail, showed “limited understanding of the project needs,” proposed an inexperienced team and lacked information about the vehicle fleet – which officials described as a “fatal flaw” in the bid.

While the two other bidders were recommended for further consideration following the technical review, the documents show officials reached the “unanimous consensus that the [SNC-Lavalin] proposal should not be considered further in the evaluation process.”

It went on to state that “resolving all of the major issues in the submission would be a lengthy and likely impractical process. … The significant scope discrepancies should cast doubt on the validity of the overall proposal.”

The report’s conclusion describes SNC-Lavalin’s bid as a “poor technical submission throughout.” It also said the bid uses “sweeping motherhood statements that demonstrated a limited understanding of the project” and the “résumés of several key individuals were poor.”

In a written statement, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson defended the city’s handling of the contract. He noted that the process was reviewed independently by the Auditor-General and the city’s fairness commissioner.

“I trust that this procurement process was conducted fairly and respect the Auditor-General’s work in ensuring it followed best practices,” he said Friday.

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