Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

The Ottawa LRT Debacle

(Originally published in the Globe and Mail, February 10, 2023)

Mention Ottawa’s new multibillion-dollar Light Rail Transit (LRT) line to residents of the city and you will hear things that cannot be printed in this newspaper.

How such a promising project turned into a profanity-generating fiasco is worth examining in detail because it is far from unique. Similar stories can be found across Canada and around the world. And there will be more to come unless we get serious about the planning and delivery of big projects.

When Ottawa’s LRT was approved, it sounded wonderful.

A clean, efficient train running above and below ground from the east of the city through downtown and a little west. After that was done, two more phases would connect the whole city, easing traffic congestion, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making the city more livable.

The cost would be $2.1-billion. When Jim Watson ran for mayor in 2010, he hammered that home. The project would be “on time and on budget,” he promised. The estimated cost would be the full and final cost.

And that is where the problems started.

What Mr. Watson did not acknowledge at the time is that $2.1-billion was never intended to be a final estimate. More planning and design work was required before a reliable number could be settled on. But Mr. Watson was emphatic and that number effectively became a hard cap, as noted in the recently released report of the provincial inquiry led by Justice William Hourigan. It was written into contracts. It became the basis of design and delivery work.

Unfortunately, that number was too low. As a result, “certain design choices were made based on the inflexibility of the budget,” the inquiry report noted. “For example, platform doors were excluded from the design due to budgetary constraints.” These doors would have prevented people on the platform from interfering with the train’s doors. And guess what happened when the trains finally started to run? Right. People interfered with the train doors. Major delays followed, leaving platforms jammed with fuming commuters late for work.

People often say that projects “go wrong.” That’s seldom true. They don’t go wrong so much as they start wrong.

Typically, and often for political reasons, planning is rushed, making it quick and superficial. Problems aren’t discovered or they are ignored. But a problem overlooked does not vanish. Eventually, it surfaces. And bites.

The crowds stranded at LRT stations when trains were stalled by jammed doors didn’t know it but they were victims of a basic mistake made almost a decade earlier.

Another source of trouble was the delivery model. Who would be responsible for what? Who would supervise? Who would bear the risk of things going wrong? These are fundamental questions for any big project.

With advice from private consultants and a provincial agency, the city went with a public-private partnership in which Ottawa contracted with a consortium of major engineering and construction firms – the Rideau Transit Group (RTG) – which subcontracted with other private companies. RTG agreed to build and maintain the LRT for a flat fee within a specified time. If it was late, or over budget, RTG shouldered the cost.

In exchange, RTG got a free hand. The city would not be a hands-on supervisor.

RTG, in turn, contracted similarly with subcontractors.

This is a popular model because it seems like a no-lose proposition for the client, who can sit back and watch while all the risk of something going wrong is on the contractor and subcontractors. When a sinkhole opened in downtown Ottawa, this model looked brilliant. RTG was on the hook, not taxpayers.

But shifting risk – the technical term is “covering your butt” – is not what delivers a successful project.

For a project to be built smoothly and quickly, and for it to work well when built, the people and organizations doing the work must become a single, determined, committed team. They must co-operate closely, be mutually supportive, and work together to find the best solutions to inevitable problems. The project’s success must be their singular goal.

The delivery model the city used all but ensured that wouldn’t happen.

When every new problem is a mortal danger to the bottom line of whoever is legally responsible, the top priority isn’t to come together and find solutions. It is to pin the blame on someone else.

If there’s an overriding theme in the inquiry report, it’s that the parties failed to work together.

The city threatened and badgered RTG. RTG and the subcontractors worked separately. When the project got into trouble, fingers were pointed, lawyers called, lawsuits launched.

Ironically, one of the few times the city and RTG managed to work together co-operatively came after deadlines were repeatedly missed and the mayor publicly and firmly committed to a new opening date. Testing revealed the trains weren’t working properly so city officials and RTG privately agreed to lower the bar for passing tests and pretend that all was well.

Spin may work with people but reality can’t be fooled. Malfunctions, delays and two derailments followed.

There is a better way.

When the British Airports Authority decided to build a huge new terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport, it actively led the project with a heavy emphasis on co-operative teamwork that put the project first. BAA drafted contracts that guaranteed contractors and subcontractors would get paid at least their costs, with bonuses for surpassing benchmarks. That put the risk of nasty surprises such as sinkholes on BAA. But it also meant contractors didn’t have to engage in blame-shifting. Their self-interest lay exclusively in getting the project done on budget and on time.

As a direct result, the level of co-operation on the project was unprecedented. Thousands of workers from dozens of organizations became a single, determined, committed team. When a problem arose, they didn’t call their lawyers. They got together and solved the problem.

Along with rigorous planning, this collective, co-operative effort is why Heathrow got its new terminal on time and on budget. Everyone won (except the lawyers).

Rushed planning and a bad delivery model probably would have been enough to make a hash of Ottawa’s LRT. But the city made another major mistake.

An experienced carpenter is a better carpenter. Everyone knows that. Experience improves people and organizations. That’s true of anything – from carpentry to contracting, engineering and management.

But as the inquiry showed in detail, Ottawa’s LRT project was riddled with inexperience from top to bottom.

The city also ignored advice to choose a proven train model and went with what the inquiry called “an essentially new vehicle based on unproven technology.” Would this new train work in the icy grip of an Ottawa winter? The city chose to roll the dice. It lost.

Skimping on experience made delays inevitable and the train unreliable. At a minimum, as the inquiry noted, that should have been built into planning, with timelines lengthened and allowance made for much more rigorous testing. It wasn’t. Instead, everyone rushed to complete the project by the date demanded by the mayor. With grimly predictable results.

Big project fiascos hurt the people they are supposed to serve and they waste enormous sums of money that could be put into more projects, making life better for all. These fiascos are not inevitable. We know what works. To build big projects faster, cheaper and better, we need leaders determined to put it into practice.