While Ottawa may be the national capital, the goings-on up on Parliament Hill aren’t what get most people here worked up these days. Instead, it’s the city’s new light-rail system.

The result of all of this is that only 13 trains are in service most of the time, rather than the promised 15. Some days it’s much worse. Last week only six trains were running during one rush-hour period; some rush hours have had no service.

Five months on, the problems and disruption seem to keep on coming.

Aside from dealing with uncertainty, passengers have found themselves stuck on overcrowded platforms. A fleet of buses has been put on standby, and buses have been pulled from other routes to rescue rail users while stranding other bus users.

Construction delays and break-in problems, if perhaps of shorter duration, are common to big transit projects. But the situation in Ottawa may provide a lesson for cities about how not to go about building them.

Throughout the opening delays and the seemingly cursed operation of the new line, increasingly frustrated local politicians have often found themselves in the dark about what was going on. And that, one expert told me, is directly related to a decision made in 2012 to create the 2 billion Canadian dollar project through something called a public-private partnership, which public servants and bankers usually call a 3P or P3.

Historically, the city would have raised the money to build the system, then hired companies to design and build it. Whatever emerged would be maintained by city.

But the design, building and construction and construction financing of Ottawa’s system was turned over to a specially created company owned by ACS Infrastructure, a Spanish engineering company; Ellis-Don, a construction company based in Mississauga, Ontario; and SNC-Lavalin, the Montreal-based engineering company that was the talk of Ottawa for other reasons this time last year. Those three companies also received a second contract from the city to maintain the system for the next 30 years.

Matti Siemiatycki, the director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto who has long studied 3Ps, told me that Ottawa’s mess was being widely followed.

“It really starts to raise questions about whether public-private partnerships are a model that’s going to persist, to continue to deliver these big projects,” he said.

Projects built through this system, Professor Siemiatycki told me, generally cost more. But the theory is that if private sector companies effectively “own” projects, they will be driven to build them on time and on budget and ensure that they work properly.

The process has been used throughout Ontario and in other provinces, particularly British Columbia, to build hospitals, courthouses and schools, and the federal government under Stephen Harper set up a public-private partnership fund. For the most part, Professor Siemiatycki said, it has generally worked well.

But Professor Siemiatycki also said that failure of the private vendors to quickly resolve the problems in Ottawa is puzzling particularly given that the city has refused to pay the consortium millions of dollars in monthly maintenance fees and that the city is attempting to bill the consortium for the cost of things like the parallel bus service — factors that, according to theory, should prompt swift action.

Source link