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Every government screws up from time to time. Politicians and public service workers are only human, and mistakes will inevitably be made.
However, particularly egregious screwups have become the rule in many Canadians jurisdictions rather than the exception. Each news cycle seems to surface another mind-boggling instance of ineptitude or indifference — sometimes both.
The current fiasco in Ottawa is a perfect example of this. On Canada Day, Pimisi Station, the closest light-rail transit (LRT) station to the city’s celebrations, was closed for public safety reasons. After much public outrage, it emerged that this was because Pimisi Station isn’t designed to handle “substantial crowds” and has a dearth of emergency escape routes.
This isn’t some decades-old station designed for a smaller populace. It’s an LRT station that opened in 2019. Who designs a public transit station in this century that can’t handle crowds?
Speaking of that 2019 opening, it shouldn’t have happened to begin with. A 2022 public inquiry suggested that Ottawa and the Rideau Transit Group opened the LRT system to the public despite being warned by French train constructor Alstrom it wasn’t ready for service.
That 2019 launch wasn’t on time, either. It was more than a year late and suffered its first “glitch” within 48 hours. Within a month, computer failures, jammed doors and delays followed. Not to mention the multiple riders who slipped and hurt themselves because the new station’s tile floors turned into treacherous slip ’n’ slides when it rained.
This pattern continued, with lowlights including sewage smells that experts worried could lead to asthma attacks, parts literally falling off trains and damaging other trains and allegations that the new trains weren’t properly designed for Ottawa’s winters.
Now, there are more problems. Three weeks ago, an inspection found a bearing issue that required the indefinite closure of Ottawa’s entire LRT system. Every train would have to be inspected for the same problem before resuming service.
Last week, OC Transpo (Ottawa’s corporation tasked with running the transit system) still didn’t know when service could resume. This Tuesday, five single-car trains finally returned to serve a portion of one of the city’s rail lines, with service along the full line expected to return on Aug. 14. Still, the transit agency announced single-car trains would be used for the remainder of the summer. The resumed LRT line typically runs two-car trains, so this means the system will operate at half its usual capacity.
A few hours west of Ottawa, Toronto also continues to suffer a string of transit blunders. The city’s Eglinton Crosstown LRT line was supposed to open in 2020, a date that’s been pushed yet again to 2024.
Torontonians can be forgiven for some skepticism about this projected timing. The new date was only released after public ire erupted when it was announced the project had no “credible schedule” for completion. Meanwhile, the major artery it will presumably run on has been a traffic nightmare since 2011, with small businesses and area residents suffering in the meantime.
Reviews of the work so far have revealed 260 quality control issues, including, somehow, track laid in the wrong place that risks train derailments if unfixed. Some Toronto city councillors have been calling for a public inquiry into the debacle, similar to Ottawa’s inquiry, since December.
When major cities become incapable of adding to their transit networks without catastrophic blunders that demand public inquiries, the overseeing agencies and governments themselves are clearly defective.
And what will happen to them? In most cases, the answer is and will remain nothing at all. Perhaps a public apology, but even that’s no longer guaranteed. Ottawa residents are still waiting for one, even though OC Transpo executives and Mayor Mark Sutcliffe found time to pose for a smiling photo op on one of the sort-of-half-returned trains.
The days of accountability in politics, the public service and Crown agencies seem near extinct at every level of government. The messes that are now commonplace in the public sector would more often than not be downright career-ending in the private sector. At the very least, resignations or disciplinary action would be in order.
Without accountability, there’s little incentive to do better — or, in some cases, to do anything at all.
Worsening the problem: too many politicians and public sector executives have no skin in the game they oversee. They don’t use the transit systems they’re charged with improving. They don’t need the housing that’s missing. They don’t worry about paying the prices that keep rising.
Elected leaders at the top of the public pyramid must bring back real consequences for those who fail spectacularly and repeatedly. At the same time, we must find ways to encourage and enable those who actually experience the impacts of bad governance to run for office and win.
Until then, it won’t matter how bad the screwups are — no one will pay for them except taxpayers and those forced to rely on broken systems.
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