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An OC Transpo O-Train west of Tremblay LRT Station In Ottawa on Sept. 20, 2021, after it derailed.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Before the release of the public inquiry report into Ottawa’s light-rail fiasco, a former citizen transit commissioner told the local newspaper that she hoped the report would be “cathartic” for everyone.

It might seem odd that something as dry as a provincial inquiry could provide an emotional balm for an entire city, let alone that a transit system could inspire rage or despair that needed venting in the first place.

But that’s only if you do not live in Ottawa.

The sense of farcical failure is thick from the very first sentence of Justice William Hourigan’s 664-page report, released Wednesday: “The Ottawa Light Rail Transit project was supposed to provide safe and reliable transportation for the residents of Ottawa.”

Instead, he concluded, what launched in September, 2019 – 16 months and four blown deadlines past due – was rammed into a tight-fisted budget and “unconscionable” misleading timelines, and cobbled together out of new, unproven train cars that would lead one consultant to say Ottawa “took one for the team” as transit guinea pigs.

The relationship between the city and LRT builders deteriorated to the point of open hostility, Justice Hourigan found, resulting in “multimillion-dollar litigation, which the taxpayers of Ottawa will continue to fund for the foreseeable future.”

But he reserved his most withering criticism for the city officials so fixated on politically driven timelines that they deliberately misled city council (and by proxy, all of Ottawa), changed rules as they went to get the answers they wanted and used a WhatsApp group chat like a members-only clubhouse.

When the $2.1-billion LRT was undergoing final testing, it was failing miserably, but key city officials deliberately withheld that information from council. When pressed on this at the inquiry, then-mayor Jim Watson, former transit manager John Manconi and Steve Kanellakos, ex-city manager, all gave versions of the same answer: They were supposed to update everyone when testing was done – not bother them with niggling updates about how the trains didn’t work in the meantime.

If you’ve ever wondered how a judge might manage, within the antiseptic language of a public inquiry, to say that people lied to him with an insulting level of obviousness, here is Justice Hourigan responding to that: “This evidence from Mayor Watson, Manconi and Kanellakos does not withstand scrutiny, and the commission does not accept it as a truthful explanation of what motivated the failure to communicate with council.”

For people who don’t reside in the city and have not watched the debacle unfold in real time – or, say, been trapped in a transit station like livestock in a holding pen when the trains stop running but the rush-hour flood of humanity does not – it can be difficult to fully grasp the cartoonish scope of things.

In the early weeks of LRT service, there were so many glitches that it seemed like a strange miracle when it did work. Three morning rush hours in a row, the trains stopped entirely for long stretches, first because of doors jammed and then a computer failure, leading to mayhem at the stations.

Passengers at Parliament station, the major downtown hub, noted the unmistakable waft of raw sewage. For months, transit officials blamed various causes – moisture in a tunnel, slow-drying sealants or, in the case of one particularly creative citizen transit commissioner, the more sensitive noses of women – before finally acknowledging that they knew full well a sewer pipe had been punctured during construction.

A few months in, once many of the initial problems had been ironed out, there was again an acute shortage of trains because the wheels were somehow no longer completely round and had to be repaired. After that, the LRT derailed – twice, in as many months. The second time shut the whole system down for more than seven weeks.

When the trains finally started running again, city council magnanimously gifted everyone with free transit for a month, which felt like being offered a complimentary entrée after finding hair in your appetizer.

Despite the damaging news coverage and the commissioner’s scathing findings, the three people at the city most obviously implicated have already tidily shown themselves the door.

In September, 2021, Mr. Manconi retired and now works in the private sector. Mr. Watson declined to run again in the municipal election in October, and after more than three decades in politics said he was ready for a break.

“It leads to serious concerns about the good faith of senior city staff and raises questions about where their loyalties lie,” Justice Hourigan wrote of the behaviour pattern on Mr. Watson’s watch.

He added that it was “difficult to imagine the successful completion of any significant project while these attitudes prevail within the municipal government.” That’s unfortunate news for Ottawa, given that crews are currently tunnelling through the city’s western flank and laying track for the $4.6-billion expansion of the LRT.

Last out the door was Mr. Kanellakos, who resigned two days before the report was released. He said “the decision is mine and mine alone,” but added that based on the questioning at the inquiry, he expected the report would offer a harsh assessment of how the city handled things.

After torturous months and years of working out a truly amazing array of kinks, the trains in Ottawa function quite well at the moment. But it will likely take some more time before residents feel sure about that rather than nervously hopeful.

On the day the report came out, local media tried to reach Mr. Watson for comment. He was unavailable on a “personal holiday.”

Before he left office, he’d glowingly explained his retirement plans: He booked a cross-Canada train ride.

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