Will Technology Overtake LRT? Benn



How can organizations plan large projects in the face of change?

Earlier this week The Bulldog asked if Ottawa’s light-rail project was obsolete. That’s fair because we see the combination of rapidly evolving alternative technological solutions. Ottawa is not alone in this quandary.

Manufacturers must take into account new technologies and competitors as they develop plans for factories. Retailers and the owners of malls need to factor in the evolving e-commerce space, and distribution models. Large capital projects take time to plan, construct and be paid for all while the underlying assumptions behind the project are subjected to forces beyond the control, or even imaginations, of those who are responsible for it.

Between the already-present shift to telecommuting and the somewhat imminent self-driving vehicle, the number of people who need to commute will change. In the meantime, Ottawa has committed $2.1 billion of municipal funds on a short-line LRT, the utility of which will only be achieved (if at all) once the LRT extends to the outer edges of the suburbs. Phase 2 of the LRT doesn’t reach the outer edges of any of Ottawa’s distant suburbs.


Mayor Jim Watson touting Phase 2 of Ottawa’s light-rail plan.


At best it touches the inner edge of Orleans, and that won’t be until 2023 or 2024 or, well they really don’t know because the city has extended the bid deadline due to the complexity of the RFP. The city dares not speak of when Phase 3 will reach Barrhaven or Kanata.

By the time Phase 3 is implemented, the total cost of the LRT will be measured in the 10s of billions of dollars, with the city of Ottawa’s share being in the $10-billion range. The old Texan adage of “it isn’t much if you say it fast” comes to mind.

Let’s focus on some of the inherent problems that are under the city’s influence.


First start by articulating a vision. It could be “the LRT will move a large number of people a long distance in less time than the current alternatives.”

The city has no LRT vision. Instead, we have heard Mayor Jim Watson repeat that Phase 1 is on time, on budget and how iron-clad the contract is regarding cost overruns. Instead from the vision, the city could plan how the result looks.

Second, execution matters. The longer it takes to execute, the more the organization is exposed to changing conditions and delays in generating revenue. The speed of execution of the LRT project has been abysmal.

Building the LRT in small increments is politically expedient for a mayor who appears to consider that most important. By building the LRT as a series of short lines, the city has delayed the effectiveness of the entire project. It’s so far off that no one will talk about it. We can only hope the lead digit in the year is a two.

Each phase of the LRT means a repetition of many of the same steps. Project plan, project definition, begging for additional funding from the federal and provincial governments, the bid process, the bid evaluation, negotiating the contracts (one can only hope that the city administration has learned from the errors on the Rideau Transit Group contract), and interacting with the project lead on another long construction period. You have to be a glutton for punishment to repeat this process.

It is too late to take corrective, leadership action for Phase 1. It might be too late for Phase 2, unless someone shows some initiative on the issue. It is not too late for Phase 3.

On to the next big capital project – a new central library.

How have changes in demographics, behaviour and technology changed the old bricks-and-mortar type of library? A lot, but apparently not enough to deter Watson from wanting a new, architectural wonder on the western side of downtown to add to his legacy. Perhaps it could be on Jim Watson Drive.

The need for it has been as clearly articulated as the LRT’s.

Halifax and Calgary each have a new one so we do too as per Councillor Keith Egli. The metrics on what this new library will achieve have the same level of clarity as the non-existent LRT ridership study.

With the same leadership team, what could go wrong?

Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.


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4 thoughts on “Will Technology Overtake LRT? Benn

  1. Long term planning has always been a problem. The longer it takes to decide what will be the wave of the future – the greater the chance that the next wave will sweep you under water.

    Sans a crystal ball, it is no more than an educated guess



  2. Ron. Ouch. Where I come from the weekend is considered a time of rest and when I signed in to email this morning and clicked the link that brought me to your article my head began to spin. This is a huge subject and I’m afraid I can’t address it in a two-sentence quip. Ken, feel free to edit away.

    As you note in paragraph 2 this issue has far-reaching, in fact global, implications. For me the key to your article is encapsulated in paragraph 3 and the rest serves as illustration to the primary issues you raise therein.

    I’d like to begin with the concept of standardization and illustrate using a piece of 1970s technology, the integrated stereo system, in this case one consisting of 3 parts, a turntable, a controller, and a pair of speakers. Let’s say company X makes the best system overall. However, company A manufactures the best turntable, while company B produces the best controller, and company X makes the best speakers. By combining the best pieces from each company, we can create a better sound than by purchasing the one manufactured by company X. This is possible because industry-wide standards were set for the parts that link the components together.

    A question we grapple with all the time is who really runs a country (a city even), government or industry. Clearly governments “should” look after running countries with industry playing a strong partnership role.

    Next, technology is developing at runaway speeds these days. Is this good? In some cases yes, but in many no. Businesses are allowing ever-changing technologies to drive decision making when they should be adopting the appropriate technologies to support the strategies developed by their board of directors. So, businesses are falling into a “keeping up with the Joneses (i.e. their competitors)” malaise centred around technology rather than their core business. Allow me to illustrate using the banking industry. Every time I go to the ATM I see an animated middle-aged man wearing a blue suit and a bowler hat. I guess the bank thinks I need to be entertained and can’t wait 5 to 10 seconds while my password is confirmed before I can gain access to the ATM. But really, what’s any bank’s core business? In my opinion it’s helping customers grow their wealth, not showcasing their IT department. In this particular instance technology does not provide any value to the customer and I’m probably losing interest to pay the technologists who develop this stuff.

    So, back to the important stuff. If Ottawa wants to become a big league player why aren’t the people who run the city recognizing problems like the one you have pointed out and working to fix them. How about organizing an international symposium, in Ottawa, to discuss the future of light rail with one of the goals being setting standards within the industry or perhaps determining how light rail will survive in a world in which the competition is becoming more fierce. Let’s face it, mass transportation is not going away, just like hammers and nails aren’t going to disappear anytime soon (they’re old technologies but they work). The overall goal is to prevent all the money we, as taxpayers, are spending now from being wasted. Technology needs to be reigned in or we’ll all be broke because things change so frequently, eg. iPhones last about 6 months before the next generation or upgrade appears. If we don’t begin setting standards for new technologies as they appear, and not only for those that impact LRT, then 5-year, 10-year projects will be obsolete before they ever go into production.


    1. Sisco:

      I would appreciate it if you would do your own editing on comments this long.

      Frankly, I’d like Saturday night off too, particularly after spending a day working on technical stuff with The Bulldog.

      Were I not the editor, you would have lost me one-third of the way through. Others in probably less time.

      People on the Internet have the attention span of a gnat. When I was in newspapers, the mantra was to keep it short and very good because your reader has the option of the crossword and the horoscope and Dear Abby. They’ll choose those three over you anytime.

      It’s worse on the Internet. Unless you’ve discovered the second coming of Christ, you should really keep it down to a comment, not an essay.

      This is not meant as disrespect, just the hard truth of people’s reading habits.




  3. Thanks, Ken. I understand where you’re coming from and have been conscious of keeping my comments short and will continue to do so. It’s just that Ron hit the bullseye with his thoughts on this subject.


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