By: Kate Porter
For the first time since the pandemic began, Ottawa City Hall was home to an in-person rally spurred by some city councillors who have pushed their political colleagues to call an emergency meeting over concerns about axles on the city's LRT vehicles.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and the chair of the transit commission, Allan Hubley, have opposed calls for an emergency meeting that have come from a group of city councillors, including Catherine McKenney, who is also a transit commissioner.
On Wednesday outside city hall, McKenney rallied with other councillors, transit advocates and riders calling for more than written answers about the recent crop of problems to hit OC Transpo.
The most serious problem saw a light rail train derail on Aug. 8 after an axle broke. Ten train cars were then identified for repairs.
But the next transit commission meeting will not take place until Sept. 20 and the commission last met on June 16, leaving councillors frustrated.
"Call me naïve, but I really did not think that this was going to be the time for us to start governing by memo," said McKenney, who wants the train's maintainer and builder, Rideau Transit Group, to appear in a public meeting to be questioned.
On Monday night, transportation general manager John Manconi released a five-page memo answering various questions about the LRT and bus operations.
In the memo, he confirmed there had been no axle or bearing issues during tests before the Confederation Line's launch in September 2019. He also described steps being taken to deal with odour at downtown LRT stations, and the technical issues that caused a couple of train delays on Aug. 21.
Lack of transparency
Along with McKenney, council colleagues Diane Deans, Riley Brockington, Mathieu Fleury, Theresa Kavanagh, Rawlson King, Carol Anne Meehan and Shawn Menard attended the rally, in addition to citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert.
Kavanagh said residents need to have confidence in OC Transpo and its LRT, but people are getting nervous about boarding public transit again, and they must believe in the big, expensive expansion of tracks east, west and south.
Brockington said decision makers have not been given timely information on "chronic" problems with the LRT — referring to the jammed doors, electrical issues, and cracked wheels that plagued its first year.
"This was the straw that broke the camel's back for many members of council and the commission, with the axles coming off," he said.
A rally by those who govern is rare, especially when calling for more transparent governance, but it is evidence of a divided city council this term as the group of councillors often sit in the minority when votes take place around the council table.
They said they want to work cohesively rather than turn to rallies to pressure others for information about such a massive public project as light rail.
"I can't believe we have to gather on the steps of city hall to demand a meeting. Last I checked, we were living in a democracy," said Deans, who represents the ward of Gloucester-Southgate.
Transit chair opposes 'grandstanding'
In an email to CBC News, Hubley disagreed with the group of councillors and reiterated a thorough review of the axle problem is underway to ensure public safety.
He also said there is "zero evidence" any information is being withheld.
"There is no 'governing by memo' happening here," he wrote, saying a memo is the fastest way to relay information.
"This tells me the reputation of council and the hard-working men and women of OC Transpo, and our partners in this review, is being sacrificed to political grandstand, and that is frankly very sad and uncalled for."