Although mayoral candidate Jim Watson was reluctant to support Ottawa's current transit plan, and especially the downtown Ottawa transit tunnel, while a member of provincial parliament, he says that a closer examination of project and the numbers behind it have eased his mind--to some degree. Watson's reluctance, he says, was due to the city's inability to properly commit to a transit plan in the past, citing in particular the cancelled north-south O-Train expansion.
When the previous council had approved the north-south plan on a fixed-price contract, and I was a part of the cabinet that secured $200M for the province’s share, then the feds came on board, and that project was set to hit the rails--and unfortunately because of the election it was derailed. And that frustrated me, as a taxpayer but also as a provincial MPP who represents Ottawa, in many instances. First, our credibility suffered in the eyes of commuters, people bidding on the project, other levels of government; it didn’t look like we had our act together. And secondly, it cost us close to $100M—which is a lot of money—both for the lawsuit and all the ancillary costs involved over years of getting to the north-south route.
So I came at the next plan that they proposed with a fair degree of scepticism because of their track record of flip-flopping on one plan, literally, within one month, as the mayor supported it, and then he didn’t support it, and it died, all in that first month after he was elected. So I took the time to talk and get briefed by people in the transportation industry both inside and outside the city on what, exactly, the new plan was all about, whether it would meet our needs as a city, what it would cost, what the estimates were, and how accurate those estimates were.
After this, Watson announced his support for the plan--with two caveats: First off, the procurement process, in his mind, should be run through Infrastructure Ontario (IO), an arm's length crown corporation of the Government of Ontario. The corporation manages numerous projects from across Ontario, one local example being the expansion of the Queensway-Carleton Hospital. Watson thinks the credibility that IO carries will be positive for the process, and also thinks the skills and knowledge IO possesses will benefit the process.
I’m suggesting that [IO run the procurement] for a number of reasons: One, the city lost a lot of its credibility when they went forward with the [north-south O-Train extension] tender and then cancelled it, and we ended up with the $100M in costs to taxpayers; and, secondly—no disrespect to staff—but this is a massive undertaking, and we need to make sure that the tendering process is done properly and we don’t find ourselves in a situation like we did before, when we flip-flop on a decision and the companies are just not going to bid. And I’ve talked to a number of the companies that are interested in bidding, and many of them have said they would be very reluctant to bid if the city was running the procurement process. So Infrastructure Ontario gives them some level of comfort.
And the second caveat Watson wants is an independent, voluntary, private board of management running the construction process, to avoid the temptation of city council jumping in and making changes that might force a delay or overrun in the project.
Once the council has approved the winning bid and has awarded the contract, my view is there should be a private board of management who is accountable to council that actually runs the construction process. Not running the trains once it’s up and running, but the actual construction phase. I suggest that for a couple reasons: First of all, I think we need the kind of high-powered expertise around that table to make sure the project stays on time and on budget; and secondly, it prevents political interference from members of council meddling once the contract has been let. Because the greatest friend of contractors are change-orders. That’s where they make their money. And if you start making a whole bunch of changes to a $2.1B project, guess what: The price goes up. So I want to take away the temptation of politicians to sit down, after they’ve decided on what the plan is going to be, to say “Let’s just move that station over, under this building”, or “Maybe we should have a couple of extra elevators over at this site”, and contractors are more than willing to accommodate those needs, but they’re also more than willing to hand you a bill to do it. So the board of management would actually run the construction of the project, and once it’s over, the city and OC Transpo run the system.Watson envisions the council-appointed board being composed of different professionals--people with expertise in construction, procurement, business, project management, finance, and law--as well, perhaps, as former bureaucrats (he mentioned in particular former auditors general as a possibility).