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LRT is 377 days late and counting. Now what?

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The only good thing that can be said for the latest Confederation Line delay is that it didn’t shock anyone.

After all, Rideau Transit Group (RTG) has failed to deliver the $2.1-billion light rail system four times now. The LRT was originally due on May 24, 2018. It’s now 377 days late — and counting. 

No really, we are literally counting.

So now what? Here are five takeaways from this week’s disappointing, if not surprising, LRT news.

1. RTG doesn’t know when it will finish

According to the contract, RTG was supposed to give the city a new completion date by May 31.

But the consortium asked for two more weeks to figure it out, according to the city’s general manager of transportation, John Manconi.

Apparently, an extra 14 days will give RTG a better handle on how the train repairs were going. This strategy may be an improvement over RTG’s past behaviour.

In early March, RTG CEO Peter Lauch told councillors the system would be ready by the end of the month — something he must have known then was not remotely possible. 

CBC News Ottawa ‘The vehicles are not ready for prime time’ 00:00 00:52 John Manconi, general manager of OC Transpo, says Rideau Transit Group will not be able to hand the LRT system over to the city by the end of June. 0:52

And last month, RTG told the city it was pretty much done the Confederation Line, even though there were dozens of outstanding issues, including brake valves that need replacing and doors that don’t shut as tightly as they should. Oh, and sometimes the power cuts out, stranding the trains on the track.

While it’s obvious why RTG wants the extra time, it’s unclear why the city agreed to it.

RTG is a consortium of heavy hitters including SNC-Lavalin and ACS Infrastructure, companies that should be able to set a realistic completion date.

If they miss that next deadline, the city deducts $1 million from their payments to RTG — something that has happened twice already. That should be RTG’s concern, not the city’s.

2. The city had no Plan B for delay

It’s neither the city’s nor OC Transpo’s fault that LRT is delayed. The blame for that lies squarely with RTG.

But it’s not clear what the city’s backup plan was for a lengthy delay, which — as city officials, including the mayor, have conceded — is not unusual for a project of this magnitude.

In September 2018, OC Transpo reduced service on some routes in anticipation of a light rail system that was supposed to be completed by November. We know how that turned out.

But most of the bus changes went ahead anyway.

Expect bus delays and cancellations to continue until LRT opens. (CBC)

It’s true that bus schedules are complex beasts that are months in the making, but considering the disruption caused, why was there no contingency plan in case of a likely delay?

Those problematic route changes will have been in place for a year, or possibly more, before the LRT is open to the public.

Further, the city retains an independent assessment team that is supposed to assess the progress on the Confederation Line.

It’s not clear why the city didn’t have a better sense from this team, if not RTG, of the chance of a lengthy delay before it altered those bus routes.

3. Transit pain to worsen

OC Transpo riders have known for some time that their commutes were getting worse by the day. And this winter, Manconi publicly acknowledged that OC Transpo was “not a reliable system.”

Expect that to continue, only worse.

There are record numbers of cancellations on some routes and congestion will increase because the LRT construction is overlapping with major construction projects, such as the Elgin Street upgrade, the Nicolas Street ramp and the Innes Road overpass at Highway 417.

Another segment of Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa closed April 1. The southern end of the Centretown entertainment strip is closed until December. (CBC)

There are currently 77 lanes of traffic closed in Ottawa — as opposed to 33 last year — as well as the Chaudière Bridge.

The city was going spend $5.1 million a year to expand 30 community bus routes, and another $7.8 million to buy 12 more buses.

But those improvements aren’t coming until LRT is operating, and we don’t know when that is.

4. Council to debate a fare rollback

Coun. Diane Deans said she is “done with defending” OC Transpo to residents. “It’s indefensible to continue to charge full fare for sub-par system,” she said Tuesday.

Deans wants to decrease fares temporarily by as much as 30 per cent, a gesture of goodwill to long-suffering OC Transpo riders.

“As a member of council, I need to be able to go and say [to constituents], ‘You know what? We appreciate you, we appreciate you sticking with us,” she said.

Coun. Diane Deans said she’s done with defending OC Transpo’s ‘sub-par’ service and wants to temporarily decrease fares as a token of appreciation for riders. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Before the latest LRT delay, OC Transpo was expecting ridership to total 97.8 million in 2019 — more than three million fewer rides than 2012, when the LRT contract was signed.

But Mayor Jim Watson called the idea of a fare rollback “unrealistic” and said it was “pandering” to the public. He’s all for extending the fare freeze that was supposed to expire July 1, but not a reduction.

Among other things, Watson said that a freeze is affordable, costing a little more than $300,000 a month, while a temporary discount could cost as much as $5 million a month.

Both Watson and Deans say RTG should be charged for the lost revenue from lower fares, although it’s not at all certain RTG will agree to either plan.

Councillors will hash out what to do about fares at their meeting next week.

CBC News Ottawa Fourth delay of LRT system ‘not acceptable,’ mayor says Mayor Jim Watson says he’s called a meeting with the heads of Rideau Transit Group and Alstom to discuss the delays and push for a solution. 0:40

5. Delay to cost tens of millions

At the end of last year, the city treasurer estimated that the LRT delay was costing the city $25 million, but that was assuming it was finished by March 31.

The total will be significantly more once this is all said and done.

Additional costs come from keeping buses on the road longer than planned — as well as paying drivers incentives to stick with OC Transpo — extending bus detours and keeping the O-Train construction office going.

The city plans on sticking RTG with the costs related to the delay. The city still owes almost $260 million for the massive project, and plans to subtract the delay-related costs from that total bill.  

Does RTG know about this plan?

“They know about it,” Manconi said. “Doesn’t mean they are going to agree with it.”

Considering RTG is not taking responsibility for the costs related to the June 2016 sinkhole, it’s likely there will be a lengthy dispute over costs, which could even end up in court.

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Record one million job losses in March: StatCan

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OTTAWA — More than one million Canadians lost their jobs in the month of March, Statistics Canada is reporting. The unemployment rate has also climbed to 7.8 per cent, up from 2.2 percentage points since February.

Canada’s national statistics agency released its monthly Labour Force Survey on Thursday, using March 15 to 21 as the sample week – a time when the government began enforcing strict guidelines around social gatherings and called on non-essential businesses to close up shop.

The first snapshot of job loss since COVID-19 began taking a toll on the Canadian economy shows 1.1 million out of work since the prior sample period and a consequent decrease in the employment rate – the lowest since April 1997. The most job losses occurred in the private sector and among people aged 15-24.

The number of people who were unemployed increased by 413,000, resulting in the largest one-month increase in Canada’s unemployment rate on record and takes the economy back to a state last seen in October, 2010.

“Almost all of the increase in unemployment was due to temporary layoffs, meaning that workers expected to return to their job within six months,” reads the findings.

The agency included three new indicators, on top of the usual criteria, to better reflect the impact of COVID-19 on employment across the country.

The survey, for example, excludes the more commonly observed reasons for absent workers — such as vacation, weather, parental leave or a strike or lockout — to better isolate the pandemic’s effect.

They looked at: people who are employed but were out of a job during the reference week, people who are employed but worked less than half their usual hours, and people who are unemployed but would like a job.

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Employee at Ottawa’s Amazon Fulfillment Centre tests positive for COVID-19

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OTTAWA — An employee who works at Amazon’s fulfillment centre on Boundary Road in Ottawa’s east-end has tested positive for COVID-19.

Amazon says it learned on April 3 that an associate tested positive for novel coronavirus and is currently in isolation. The employee last worked at the fulfillment centre on March 19.

Two employees told CTV News Ottawa that management informed all employees about the positive test in a text message over the weekend.

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Amazon spokesperson Jen Crowcroft wrote “we are supporting the individual who is recovering. We are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.”

The statement also says that Amazon has taken steps to further protect their employees.

“We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC.”

CTV News Ottawa asked Amazon about the timeline between when the company found out about the positive COVID-19 case and when employees were notified.

In a separate email to CTV News Ottawa, Crowcroft said “all associates of our Boundary Road fulfillment centre in Ottawa were notified within 24 hours of learning of the positive COVID-19 case.”

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Ottawa facing silent spring as festivals, events cancelled

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This is shaping up to be Ottawa’s silent spring — and summer’s sounding pretty bleak, too — as more and more concerts, festivals and other annual events are cancelled in the wake of measures meant to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The province has already banned gatherings of more than five people, and on Monday officials announced city parks, facilities and services will remain shut down until the end of June, nor will any event permits be issued until at least that time.

“This leaves us with no choice but to cancel the festival this year,” Ottawa Jazz Festival artistic director Petr Cancura confirmed Monday.

This was to be the festival’s 40th anniversary, and organizers announced the lineup for the June 19-July 1 event the day after Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. 

The Toronto and Montreal jazz festivals had already pulled the plug because of similar restrictions in their cities, so Cancura said the writing was on the wall.

“We have a few contingency plans to keep connecting with our audience and working with our artists,” Cancura said.

People holding tickets to the 2020 festival can ask for a refund or exchange for a 2021 pass.

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