Who or what is to blame for Edmonton’s Metro Line LRT delays?

Why was the Metro Line LRT delayed and when will it become fully operational as designed and intended? We still don’t know the answer to the latter question, but the reasons for the delay have become more clear thanks to the latest report from the City Auditor.

Metro Line LRT
A train! On the Metro Line!

The Auditor’s report found that project management roles and responsibilities were not clearly defined or understood, opening dates targeted were unrealistic, status reports were not written down or communicated effectively, contract management practices were inadequate, and Council was not sufficiently kept informed. Incredibly, “Council did not receive formal updates on project progress until December 2013 when construction was supposed to be complete.” The report makes three recommendations, all of which Administration has accepted.

The Metro Line is a hot topic in Edmonton right now, and Edmontonians are not happy about it. Lots of folks are looking for someone to blame, and for good reason – the project is more than year behind schedule and we still don’t know when it’ll be “done done” as opposed to “done but”. And while I think holding Administration accountable is going to be a critical part of restoring public confidence in the City’s ability to manage large projects, what’s less clear is who that blame should fall upon.

Dorian Wandzura
Dorian Wandzura

Dorian Wandzura started as the GM of Transportation Services on September 3, 2013. He took over from Bob Boutilier, who retired from the role on July 31, 2013. Formerly a deputy GM with the Toronto Transit Commission, Boutilier was credited with getting “80% of Edmonton’s long term Light Rail Transit network has been designed, planned or constructed” during his tenure. He may now also be credited with leaving the Metro Line project in a state of disarray. While Wandzura has made some mistakes along the way, it’s pretty clear now that he inherited a mess. And not just one actually, as he’s also having to deal with the Walterdale Bridge and 102 Avenue Bridge delays, among other projects.

Bob Boutilier
Bob Boutilier

What about Charles Stolte, the former GM of ETS who was fired in June? It’s not clear exactly why Wandzura let him go, but there’s some suggestion it was because of philosophical differences rather than as a result of delays to the Metro Line. He would no doubt have been involved in the signalling work, but it’s unlikely that he was primarily responsible for the debacle.

ETS Execs
Charles Stolte, right

Then there’s Wayne Mandryk, who has been in charge of LRT Design and Construction since 2008. Until the last major city reorganization in June 2011, his branch was part of a separate department known was Capital Construction. Since then it has been part of Transportation Services. The branch “manages contracts for design and construction, identifies and evaluates project delivery strategies, and coordinates construction with other city departments and utilities.” Until the spring, it was most often Mandryk that handled public communications about the Metro Line. Now Wandzura has been handling that himself. But it doesn’t appear that switch has anything to do with confidence in Mandryk as he’s currently filling Stolte’s role as well until a replacement is found.

Wayne Mandryk
Wayne Mandryk

The Auditor’s report seems to place quite a bit of blame on both Boutilier and Mandryk:

“Schedule risks emerged as planning and procurement activities progressed. However, we found no formal documentation from LRT Design and Construction to the Transportation Services General Manager advising him of emerging issues and potential delays. We were advised by LRT Design and Construction that the culture at the time was to provide verbal rather than written reports.”

Mandryk’s department didn’t provide written reports when they should have but Boutilier would have been most responsible for allowing a culture of verbal updates to flourish.

Simon Farbrother
City Manager Simon Farbrother with Councillor Amarjeet Sohi

So up we go, to the top. City Manager Simon Farbrother started at the City of Edmonton in January 2010. That’s after the Concept Plan for the Metro Line was approved, but before the contracts were awarded and long before work began. Certainly he’s going to have to answer some difficult questions from Council next week, and I expect he’ll be ready to make some changes, but it’s hard to find fault with Farbrother in this case. Throughout his first five years with the City, a key initiative of Farbrother’s has been changing the culture. He’s led a transformation that has made the City more open, creative, and aspirational. Additionally, Boutilier had already been in charge of Transportation for three years by the time Farbrother joined, and so far hiring Wandzura seems to have been a smart move.

Still, the comment Councillor Andrew Knack made this week suggests Farbrother could have done more:

“For such a major city project, there should be a desire for those in the highest (positions), especially if they haven’t heard anything, to get a status update. That’s the discouraging part.”

He’s right. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect the folks in charge to ask for updates. Except that Council doesn’t seem to have asked for updates either, at least not in an official, there’s-a-paper-trail capacity. There were about ten agenda items from mid-2011 through until mid 2013 related to the NAIT LRT, and none of them were about project status.

Mayor Iveson wrote on Monday:

“Not only were the city’s senior managers seemingly out of the loop when contractor performance started to slip in 2011, but City Council was left totally in the dark until late 2013 – which made it all the more difficult for us to hold staff accountable and explain to the public what was going on.”

All of this begs the question, what the heck happened between 2011 and 2013? Why were senior managers and Council so out of the loop on the Metro Line LRT?

Well, there was one thing that pretty much consumed Council and CLT’s attention during that same period of time: the downtown arena.

New Edmonton Arena Construction
Rogers Place rises next to MacEwan LRT Station on the Metro Line

Think about it. The arena debate dominated attention across the city throughout 2011 and 2012. It also included a lot of secret, private meetings between Administration, the Katz Group, and City Council, which plenty of people picked up on and criticized, myself included. That could have contributed to the culture of verbal reporting.

Here’s the timeline:

Most other attention-hogging projects were done by the time problems with Metro Line project started. The Quesnell Bridge expansion was completed in September 2011 and the 23 Avenue Interchange opened the following month. The winter of 2012/2013 was a particularly bad one for potholes and that did attract a lot of attention and criticism, but we have potholes every year.

I’m not saying the downtown arena project is to blame for the Metro Line delays. Correlation does not imply causation, of course. And that project is currently on time and budget because of solid project management, and I don’t want to take anything away from that. But the timeline above fits together just a little too well, doesn’t it?

As Paula Simons wrote in her column on the auditor’s report, “there’s no smoking gun in this audit – just smoke and murk.” There are also a lot of assumptions being made in trying to explain the delays – the splitting of the contracts, the inadequate project management practices, Thales missing deadlines. Maybe the simplest answer is the right one: the City and Council were distracted.

My slightly more complicated take? The arena distraction didn’t help but the biggest issue was that the culture of Transportation Services needed to change, which is happening now that Boutilier is gone and Wandzura is in.

We’ll find out more on Monday afternoon as Council discusses the auditor’s report.