As municipalities face increasing pressure to agree to public transit P3 projects, the Ottawa LRT inquiry’s recent panel on P3s illustrated why P3s can’t be relied on to deliver safe, efficient, accessible, and reliable transit systems. From June 13 to July 7, the Ottawa LRT Commission public inquiry heard from over 40 witnesses to investigate the circumstances that led to the first stage breakdowns of the new transit system.

Witnesses did not determine one single issue at fault in the LRT rollout but it is clear that the project’s problems are tied to its design as a public-private partnership (P3).

P3s are attractive due to the promise of transferring risk to the private sector. The Commission heard clearly, however, that giving responsibility to a private consortium, the Rideau Transit Group, was a big gamble.

The drive to keep project costs low meant cutting corners on its design, including shortening the downtown tunnel and the station platforms.

The RTG chose a light vehicle train design that had never been tested in real-world conditions, leading to a cascade of malfunctions.

The RTG also failed a critical safety benchmark: 12 consecutive days of testing without issues. Their failure inevitably led to a two-month shut down due to a derailment, and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada identified incomplete maintenance as the reason why another train derailed again in September 2021.

The public has been left completely in the dark about key details of the project’s contracts. The LRT’s $5 million per month maintenance contract is posted on the city’s website but it is heavily redacted. Numerous city councillors said that they did not have the information they needed to approve the second stage of LRT construction.

On July 28, the Ottawa LRT Commission hosted an expert panel discussion focused on P3s. Panelists did not draw specific conclusions about the LRT but they described numerous problems that come with P3 projects: private corporations prioritize shareholders; the lack of transparency undermines the public interest; the costs of managing the P3 contract are high; there is often expensive litigation; and at the end of the day the government carries all residual risk.