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We deserve to know why Hamilton LRT is so delayed

Courtesy of Metrolinx
Ryan McGreal wants to know what, exactly, Metrolinx has been up to for the past two years.

On May 13, 2021, the federal and Ontario governments jointly announced a $3.4-billion funding commitment to build and operate a new light rail transit (LRT) system in Hamilton. This milestone was the culmination of years of encouraging progress punctuated by frustrating delays and heartbreaking setbacks – including a previous iteration of the project that the Ontario government suddenly cancelled on Dec. 17, 2019, just a few months before the final construction bids were supposed to be submitted.

The press release from the May 2021 funding announcement calls the project "shovel-ready" and quotes Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney saying this partnership would "ensure that we can get shovels in the ground as soon as possible for this critical transit project."

But here we are more than two years later, and Metrolinx, the Ontario Crown agency tasked with implementing the LRT project, has not even put out a request for qualifications (RFQ) yet.

An RFQ is the first step toward procuring a large contract like building LRT. It is a process by which potential bidders demonstrate that they are qualified to complete the work they are bidding for. Metrolinx carefully reviews the applicants and then selects a shortlist of qualified bidders who are then invited to participate in a request for proposals (RFP).

The RFP is a competitive bidding process in which qualified participants submit proposals to build the project according to an agreed set of specifications. The bidder with the most competitive proposal is then selected to receive the contract.

An artist's rendering of LRT running at Wellington and King streets. Image courtesy of Metrolinx

Normally the RFQ and RFP process takes around two years to complete. But after more than two years since the LRT funding announcement, the process has not even started yet. To say this is frustrating is an understatement.

I would really love to understand exactly what Metrolinx has been up to for the past two years.

We know that following some recent LRT construction fiascos – particularly the Eglinton Crosstown LRT in Toronto, which is already two years late and significantly over budget – Metrolinx decided to change its procurement model. Under the old system, Metrolinx would award a master agreement to design, build, finance, operate and maintain (DBFOM) the entire project to a consortium made up of individual companies that specialize in each aspect of the process.

So a consortium would be an ad hoc partnership that includes an engineering firm, a construction company, a financing company, a supplier of rolling stock, a system operator, and so on.

The idea is that the contract will discipline the parties to the consortium to work together in alignment on hitting the contractual milestones. In practice, what actually happens is that when some aspect of the project is in jeopardy or fails, the parties to the contract start taking each other to court and the Crown agency is ultimately left to deal with the fallout.

So Metrolinx revised its procurement model to maintain control of the overall project and to dole out individual sub-contracts for the various works.

In principle, this should achieve some valuable organizational goals. A big problem with the DBFOM model is that each consortium is formed on an ad hoc basis and there's no accumulation of organizational expertise in building large, complex projects like LRT. Instead, each new consortium in a DBFOM procurement model is essentially starting from scratch.

With Metrolinx as the master player, it should theoretically be able to develop a continuity of steadily increasing project management expertise that is absent from the ad hoc approach. Whereas communication breakdowns and failures of a necessary component might tear a consortium apart, Metrolinx as the project manager can theoretically maintain oversight on every aspect of the project and identify and fix problems before they spiral out of control.

This new model should also allow Metrolinx to move a lot faster since they can tender the work in more bite-sized pieces instead of having to go through a huge monolithic qualification and bidding process for the whole 30-year project horizon, which can take years.

So I'm genuinely confused as to what the Hamilton LRT project management team has been doing for the past two years. From the outside, there is no public evidence they've done anything at all.

I don't assume they're incompetent or malicious, but I do think the public has a right to know why this is taking so long. I hope someone from Metrolinx can provide some genuine insight into what's happening – and not just a bureaucratic non-answer but some real honesty.

Two years ago, Hamilton LRT was "shovel ready." Heck, four years ago it was already in the home stretch of the original RFP process before the Ontario government suddenly cancelled it based on claims about cost overruns that turned out to be bogus.

Not only has the ground not yet broken on major construction, but the procurement process to get to that groundbreaking is at least a year and probably closer to two years away.

Is Metrolinx making Hamilton LRT a priority, or has this file just been languishing in relative abandonment for the past two years? Is the project being deliberately slow-walked under political interference from some party that wants it to fail? Has Metrolinx become so risk-averse after recent high-profile gaffes that they are now too afraid to move decisively? Are needlessly bureaucratic internal processes jamming up the works?

Again, we deserve some honest answers.

If the delay is not deliberate, we deserve to know what Metrolinx is doing to identify and address the underlying cause.

If it is deliberate, we deserve to know who is interfering with an approved and funded project, and why.

Ryan McGreal is a web programmer, consultant, writer, editor and self-described troublemaker. He served as founder and editor of Raise the Hammer, an online magazine dedicated to sustainable urban revitalization in Hamilton. He is also a founding member of Hamilton Light Rail, a community group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. His personal website is Quandy Factory.