Adam: LRT query – Doug Ford takes a page from John Baird’s playbook

The Ontario government’s public inquiry into light rail, in the midst of next year’s local elections, feels like déjà vû again.

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The Ontario government’s public inquiry into Ottawa’s LRT, in the midst of next year’s local elections, feels like déjà vû again. It looks like 2006 redux.

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The progressive conservative Ontario government says Ottawa residents deserve better than a light rail transit system that has been a disaster so far, and is launching a study to determine what went wrong. Several councilors, and indeed many Ottawa residents, have praised the move, but there is more to it than altruism. Party politics is written all over the place, and it looks like we’re going to relive 2006, when Conservative minister John Baird used the question to derail another liberal’s campaign, then-Mayor Bob Chiarelli. Now it’s Premier Doug Ford’s turn to try Jim Watson and we’ll see how it ends.

Then as now, rail transit was pursued by controversy, with the council divided on the issue. In 2006, the argument was whether to approve the north-south line. Today, it’s about how to best investigate issues that have plagued the $ 2.2 billion Confederation Line. Baird’s decision in the middle of the 2006 municipal election campaign to withhold federal funding for the north-south line ruined Chiarelli’s campaign and boosted rival Larry O’Brien, who continued to win.

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Today’s LRT poll, which will take place in the middle of next year’s election campaign, is the worst that could happen for Watson – if he decides to run again. Imagine that the campaign is in full swing and that Watson is being summoned to testify about the LRT failure with the accompanying media circus. It will knock him off the message. And then potentially a preliminary or final report is presented before voters cast their vote. It does not matter what the report says; Watson would be on his hind legs. It would be a nightmare for him and a bonanza for his rivals. Watson says he welcomes the public inquiry, but he should really be concerned that the PC government is dipping its toes into the LRT crisis.

There is no doubt about the dysfunction that has haunted the Confederation Line since its launch in September 2019. The contractor, Rideau Transit Group, and the train manufacturer, Alstom, have not spectacularly provided reliable service with derailments and a host of other issues. This is without a doubt a failure for the contractors. But Watson and city leaders can not escape the blame, especially after emails obtained by the CBC show that the city was aware of reliability issues that hit the Confederation Line before the official handover.

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Watson’s tight control of the LRT file has certainly backfired, and one could argue that he gave the PCs the excuse to get involved. But choosing a city auditor’s investigation because we need immediate answers – rather than a judicial inquiry that could take years – was not a bad decision. The problem was the way Watson did it.

Auditor General Nathalie Gougeon’s inquiry has now been put on hold until the scope of the Ontario inquiry is known. But given that government officials say the investigation will end before the October 2022 local elections, this will not be a judicial inquiry of the kind some Ottawa councilors demanded. It’s likely to be a shorter investigation, and we’ll just have to wait and see what the public inquiry in Ontario will do that a Auditor – General’s investigation would not have accomplished.

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The provincial government certainly has a responsibility to ensure that the city can run LRT, especially with the construction of the $ 4.6 billion Stage 2 underway, and the $ 5 trillion Stage 3 for Barrhaven and Kanata on the horizon. Yet the speed with which the government announced the inquiry, the lack of notice to the city, and the fact that it would happen during an election campaign, hardly leaves any doubt about the policy at stake. It’s 15 years since Baird took Chiarelli down. The question now is whether history will repeat itself when Ford turns its eyes to Watson.

Mohammed Adam is a journalist and commentator in Ottawa. Reach him at nylamiles48@gmail.com

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