Frustration abounds and public support for future LRT projects in Edmonton is at risk

It has been made abundantly clear that LRT is a key priority for this Council. They reiterated that point again during Tuesday’s update on the delayed Metro Line LRT (the extension to NAIT) and they made it clear to Administration that they’re not happy about the delays, nor about being kept in the dark on progress. “This has been an embarrassment,” Councillor Esslinger complained. “It’s embarrassing to say the least,” added Councillor Sohi. Earlier this week, Councillor Nickel called it “a boondoggle” and Councillor Oshry described the project as “a s**t-show”.

Metro Line LRT

The Metro Line was supposed to open most recently on Sunday, July 5. That follows failed attempts to open on June 7, and May 31, both of which follow countless previous delays. “We are still not in a position to announce an opening date,” Transportation GM Dorian Wandzura told Council when pressed yesterday. The reason? According to the City, there are still issues with the signalling system and Thales is to blame.

Thales claims they’re not the hold up and feel that trains could be operating along the line. They’re still here working on the line, but say that further work consists only of “additional functionality that was not needed for initial revenue service.” We still don’t know why the City and Thales appear to be on such different wavelengths, but there’s speculation that this is all just posturing for a coming legal battle between the two.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, on Monday the Journal revealed that it had acquired a leaked report from 2013 that outlined a number of construction issues plaguing the Metro Line. The report prompted speculation that perhaps there was more to the delayed opening than the signalling system issues the City has consistently cited. Council hammered away at this report during Tuesday’s meeting, and it was clear they were caught off-guard and had not been kept apprised of the situation in previous private updates.

It turns out the leaked report is just one of 80 total reports commissioned by the City on the project. Of the dozen issues identified in that report, nine have been closed and four are live issues that are still outstanding. There’s no word on how many deficiencies were reported and are outstanding from the other 79 reports.

“There are always deficiencies,” Wandzura said. “It’s a normal process that some of those issues are not resolved on opening day, they are dealt with in the warranty period.” Trying to provide context, City Manager Simon Farbrother explained that “every single construction project going on in this city has deficiencies, and that’s normal.” Wandzura added, “if you had a construction project with zero deficiencies, I’d be very concerned.” He reiterated a couple of times that the issues identified in the leaked report “have been or are in the process of being resolved” and that they did not contribute to the delay in opening the line. The City still feels that Thales is to blame for that.

Despite all of this bad news, Brad Smid, project manager for the line, told the Journal that he thought “the project has gone very well.” Yes, he really said that.

Is the City really being made whole?

I get the point that there are always deficiencies. In my world, if you shipped a software product and didn’t find any bugs, that’d be a clear sign that your testing processes are broken. There are always bugs. Still, attempting to reassure Council and the public by explaining that every one of our multi-million dollar projects has problems may not have been the best strategy. It’s clear that not all deficiencies are created equal, but the ones identified in leaked report were discussed as if they were all critical.

“Our objective is to get what we pay for,” said Wandzura during Tuesday’s meeting, adding that the City takes actions “to make the City whole” when deficiencies are found. This could be accomplished by some sort of remediation, financial compensation, or in the worst case, litigation.

Councillor Caterina in particular hammered away at this, suggesting that the City has accepted lower quality work because of mistakes made by the contractors. Pipe that was a smaller gauge than originally specified may have been accepted in exchange for some form of financial compensation, for instance.

The problem with that is any financial amount rendered today is likely far less than what it’ll cost if any work needs to be done in the future. I can envision the news now at a future Council update. There will be some sort of project that a future Council wants to implement, maybe running new cable to take advantage of some future technology, and they’ll be shocked when the price tag comes in significantly higher than expected because this pipe needs to be replaced with the appropriate gauge.

DSC_0803
Photo by Bill Burris

On the signalling contract, the City is holding back some of the payment until the work is done. The contract with Thales states the City can hold back 40%, which is about $19.8 million. Currently 49% of the contract has been paid. Responding to comments from Council that the amount is small to a big company, Farbrother said that “perhaps it’s not seen as punitive, but they are in the press every day” taking heat for the delay.

What these approaches don’t take into account is the wider impact of deficiencies and delays. What about all of the students and staff at NAIT who still can’t take the train? What about the numerous pedestrian and vehicular closures and detours that have added time to commutes and caused endless frustrations? What about the shattered confidence of the public in a year where we’ve had delays with nearly every major public project?

There’s too much in-camera & too little communication

City Council was scheduled to get an in-private update on the Metro Line yesterday. Thankfully, Mayor Iveson requested that the item be discussed in public instead. He wrote:

“Frankly, hearing yet another discussion of yet another private report does nothing to give the public confidence that this city council is getting information and in turn the public is getting information that we all need to determine what is going on with this project.”

“Too much of the discussion around this has been in private so I would like a public report and an opportunity for members of council to ask questions of Administration at least pertaining to these latest issues of deficiencies on the line, so there may be an airing of what is going on. At least any issues that can be clearly communicated to the public there is an opportunity to do that.”

While we didn’t come away with any major revelations during the update (aside from perhaps the number of reports commissioned on the construction) I think it’s critical that the discussion took place in public. Council did have a private update with Administration later in the day, but there’s no reason that everything needs to be done behind closed doors.

For one thing, Council desperately needs to restore the public’s faith in this project and going in-camera is not going to accomplish that. “The trust is gone, let’s just be honest about it,” said Councillor Nickel. “We need to restore people’s confidence,” said Councillor Sohi.

Kingsway/Royal Alex Station
Photo by Kurt Bauschardt

Unfortunately, it seems as though Administration’s first instinct is to go in-camera. For instance, when discussing the report on deficiencies, they attempted a few times to delay the discussion to the private session. “I’m a little disappointed that everything keeps getting reverted back to, ‘this is the normal course of construction’,” said Councillor Caterina. “At what point do we do something different?” asked Councillor Oshry, to which Administration replied, “That’s a perfect thing to discuss in private.”

This desire to go in-camera is a symptom of a much larger communications problem facing the City. Council was caught off-guard by Monday’s leaked report and is eager to prevent that from happening again. “Going forward, we’re going to want to know everything about everything,” Councillor Caterina told Administration.

To bring the discussion yesterday to a close, Mayor Iveson put forward a motion to have Administration “develop and immediately implement a public communication plan” and to prepare a report that outlines “any significant deficiencies with this project.”

“I want to be able to tell the public with confidence” that these issues “have been fully digested,” the mayor said. “The instinct to stop giving dates – we have to move past that, and just report on a regular basis,” he added. “We need to be zealous in our transparency and communication on this project.”

There doesn’t appear to be enough accountability

One thing lacking from the discussion yesterday was any accountability on the part of the City. Councillor McKeen and his colleagues did suggest a few times that the City and Council are ultimately responsible for public projects like this, but Administration seemed content to blame contractors. The public is calling for heads to roll, at least on Twitter, but there’s no sign that that is going to happen.

I’m reminded of that overused cliche about the definition of insanity. The Metro Line has been delayed again and again since December 2013, and yet the same people are in charge using the same contractors. If the inputs don’t change, how can we expect the outcomes to?

Clearly building an LRT line is a major endeavour and integrating it with an existing one has proven to be even more challenging. But it’s hard to reconcile that with the fact that so many other cities have successfully (from an outsider’s point-of-view) built even more complicated transit projects. That may not be a popular perspective within the city because it’s like comparing apples and oranges, but that’s absolutely what the public is thinking.

We’re 18 months past the first delay, and we still don’t have an opening date. How much farther down the current path do we go? We’ve heard from the City that changing contractors now and starting over on the signalling would be too costly, but that is beginning to sound an awful lot like the sunk cost fallacy. Maybe it would make more sense in the long-run to cut our losses and start over. We may not be paying Thales anything more, but we’re also not getting any closer to the end of the project.

I don’t think its wise to fire someone just to have a scapegoat, but it would go a long way toward restoring the public’s confidence in the City if some accountability measures were taken.

What impact does all of this have on the Valley Line LRT?

Understandably, Council had some questions yesterday about the impact of all of this on the Valley Line LRT. Councillor Sohi asked what, if anything, has been learned that could be applied to that project. The response? The importance of communication. Administration cited the establishment of five Citizen Working Groups as proof that things are improving with each project.

At one point, Wandzura tried to explain to Council that different procurement models result in different outcomes. The suggestion was that because the Valley Line will be built using a P3 model, we should expect things to be different. Different, yes. Better? Not necessarily. There are big concerns with the P3 model and the only reason we’re even going down that route is because it was the only way to secure federal funding. The Valley Line could very well turn out to be worse.

On the other hand, maybe expectations have been lowered so much with the Metro Line that the City will be able to exceed them with construction of the Valley Line.

When will we have an opening date for the Metro Line LRT?

Mayor Iveson asked yesterday if there’s any chance the line would be open by the start of school in the fall, to which Wandzura said he believed it would. Farbrother added that they didn’t want to suggest a date which could cause communications and public opinion to deteriorate even further. So the fall is City’s best guess, but at this point there’s no reason to have any faith in that time frame.

MacEwan Station & Rogers Place

As Paula Simons wrote, the stations and line look finished, yet they “just sit there, ghostly and pristine.” Right next door construction on Rogers Place continues, apparently on-time and on-budget. “Like a desert mirage, the promise of the NAIT LRT is always just out of reach,” Paula wrote. It’s looking increasingly likely that the new area will open before the Metro Line does.

In a private follow-up late yesterday afternoon, Council voted to hold a special meeting on the Metro Line LRT on August 17. They also made a private motion that “will move things forward” but of course we don’t know what that is just yet. An auditor’s report on the project is expected to be discussed by Council on August 24. That’s the most appropriate time for a retrospective, Farbrother suggested.

So for now we wait, with more questions than answers, and still without an opening date.