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Light rail transit built as P3s requires wide community consultation, says panel

Public-private partnerships are evidently well entrenched in Canada, given the turnout for P3 2013 conference held by the Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships in Toronto last week. Over a thousand people attended the event, which...


Public-private partnerships are evidently well entrenched in Canada, given the turnout for P3 2013 conference held by the Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships in Toronto last week. Over a thousand people attended the event, which the organizers say is the largest gathering of P3 decision-makers in the world.

Many large engineering companies were sponsors, including AMEC, AECOM, HDR, IBI, Morrison Hershfield, MMM Group and Stantec, as well as Parsons, Kiewit, and construction companies like Ellis Don, PCL, Ferrovial Cintra and Accione. Also heavily represented were lawyers and financiers.

On Thursday lunchtime, the crowd packed a huge room to hear the Hon. Lisa Raitt, Canada’s Minister of Transport, extol the benefits of P3 projects. With her face projected multiple times on a screen that stretching from end to end of the room, the Minister reminded the delegates that from 2014 the federal New Building Canada Plan will invest $53-billion over the next 10 years on provincial and municipal roads, subways and other infrastructure. Raitt said that projects will be screened to see whether P3 is appropriate because the government believes P3s provide the best value for taxpayers. In P3s constructors have to respect the budget and the client’s criteria and P3s encourage innovation. She then gave details of two of the largest P3 projects currently being negotiated: the replacement for the Champlain Bridge in Montreal, and the Detroit-Windsor crossing in Ontario — both extremely busy border crossings between Canada and the U.S.

In one of the breakout sessions following Raitt’s presentation, top executives from Canadian municipalities described four large P3 light rapid transit projects that are getting under way. The panel was chaired by Michael W. Roschlau, president and CE of the Canadian Urban Transit Association. “In 25 years I have not seen as much investment in transit as now,” Roschlau began by saying.

Engineer Mike Murray, chief administrative officer of the Region of Waterloo in southern Ontario (population 553,000), explained that the region is one month away from closing its requests for proposals for its first LRT transit line. The 19-kilometre project is being procured under a design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) arrangement. The line will have 22 stations and will be built partially on existing rail corridors. There are two goals for building the LRT, he said: moving people and shaping the community by encouraging urban intensification in core areas.

Nancy Schepers, deputy city manager of the City of Ottawa, described the new LRT that recently started construction across the city of Ottawa. The 30-year design-build-finance-maintain (DBFM) project with partner Rideau Transit Group is the first conversion of a bus rapid transit line into light rail in North America. The new 12.5-kilometre electric light rail line includes a 2.5 kilometre tunnel through the downtown core. Half an hour before the panel, it was announced that the $2.13-billion project had won gold in the CCPPP’s 2013 awards on account of its arrangement with the Province of Ontario to bundle the project with the widening of Highway 417. New lanes are being built on the highway to carry buses (10,000 passengers per day) during the construction of the LRT.

Moving west, Wayne B. Mandryk, manager of LRT design and construction with the City of Edmonton, explained that the city’s planned 27-kilometre LRT line from Mill Woods in the southeast to the city centre and then west to Lewis Farms had recently been renamed the “Valley Line.” It was originally planned as a design-build project but in 2012 was switched to P3. Preliminary engineering design has been done, land has been acquired, and Mandryk hopes to issue a request for qualifications in the next few months for the first $1.8 billion leg from Mill Woods to downtown. Edmonton was the first city in North America to have an LRT line, beginning service in 1978. The new line, however, is the first to use low-floor technology.

Vancouver is a year into construction of the Evergreen LRT, the latest extension to the skytrain. Amanda Farrell, executive director for the project, said the 11-kilometre, $1.4-billion project is being done as design-build-finance. Even as Farrell spoke, the massive tunnel boring machine was beginning its journey by rail and truck from its manufacturer in Ontario to Vancouver. The new line links Burnaby, Port Moody and Coquitlam into the Millennium Line at Lougheed Town Centre Station. It includes a two-kilometre tunnel section, has six new stations and is being built as a $1.4-billion design-build-finance project.

The panel was asked to consider how important it is to get community support for these projects. As Roschlau explained, public engagement in transit projects is probably more important than with single projects such as hospitals or courthouses which stand on their own sites. Transit is “heavily in the public view” Roschlau said, and because it creates disruption, building new lines can be “highly political.”

Both Murray and Schepers said people in their cities traditionally expected to have a lot of involvement in how transit projects are planned, but they found it is more difficult to coordinate this public consultation and input when a P3 partner is involved as a third party in the decision making.

So while public consultation is more complex with a P3 project, it is also very necessary and must be done early in the project, said the panelists.

Murray suggested that it is sometimes difficult because the P3 partner’s design might vary from the initial concepts. The drawings have to be fairly detailed and attractive to engage the public and win their support, but then these early concepts sometimes have to change as the project evolves.

The panelists agreed that it is essential to engage the public early in the process of a project, and that communication programs have to be wide reaching in order to prepare people and local businesses about the coming construction.

Schepers suggested that contracts with P3 partners can include financial penalties related to traffic and other disruptions as a means of ensuring they keep them to a minimum.

Murray said that it’s important to have clear roles and responsibilities for the different parties worked out, but the key to success is “a positive attitude on the part of the private partners.”