Valley Line P3 model not responsible for latest issues, Edmonton city councillor says

The public-private-partnership (P3) model is under scrutiny following the delay of the Valley Line Southeast LRT this week. 

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi is calling for a comprehensive review of how the city builds large projects, particularly how it pursues P3 projects.

Sohi made the comments Wednesday, when TransEd announced the $1.8 billion line from Mill Woods to downtown will not open this summer as planned.

In July, Inspectors discovered cracks in several concrete piers that support the elevated tracks. Engineers now have to figure out how to solve the issue.

Coun. Tim Cartmell said the P3 model is not responsible for the issues.

“Let’s be really clear, this has nothing to do with the form of contract,” Cartmell said in an interview Friday. “This is a design mistake.”

Cartmell said a different kind of contract agreement wouldn’t change the origin of the error — it’s engineers design, inspect and sign off on projects.

“That’s written into the Alberta building code. It’s the same on every structure in the province.”

In 2016, the city entered into the P3 agreement with TransEd, a consortium of companies created specifically to build the LRT. 

Under the model, the contractor looks after designing, building, operating and maintaining the line. Proponents argue a P3 scenario takes a lot of the risk away from the government for problems and cost overruns. 

The city owns the infrastructure but TransEd is responsible for operating the line for 30 years.

‘Fundamentally flawed’

“P3s are fundamentally flawed for public transportation projects,” Cartmell said.

Maintenance and operations present one set of challenges.

The Valley Line West LRT from downtown to Lewis Farms, now under construction, is a partial P3 where the city owns the vehicles and the group of companies builds and operates the trains. 

Cartmell said that eventually, when cars from the southeast leg run on the west LRT track, there may be problems blending the systems and determining responsibility for maintenance and quality control. 

“You cannot draw a discrete line around this P3 because the cars go off your track and onto somebody else’s and now you’ve lost control,” he said. 

“The operating and maintenance part of the P3 begins to fail.” 

Lack of transparency

Ricardo Acuña, executive director of the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta, agrees the P3 model is not responsible for the delay.

“You can’t say the P3 is responsible for the cracks in these structures,” he said.

However, Acuña is critical of the model primarily because most details of the contracts are private and lack transparency.

“If these can’t be scrutinized publicly from the start, then they should never be entered into those agreements.”

Earlier this week, Sohi said the projects lack transparency and reduce the city’s oversight and accountability. 

Coun. Tim Cartmell says P3 models are ‘fundamentally flawed’ for public transportation projects but the model is not responsible for the latest delayed LRT line. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Cartmell, a professional engineer specializing in structural design and building management, disagrees with Sohi that a P3 restricts the city’s oversight on a project.

“We have a pretty high level of oversight on this. We’ve got several people on a team that are working with the design group working with TransEd.” 

The city’s team meets with TransEd regularly to discuss progress, interruptions and challenges, he said.

Reasons for P3

Cartmell said the P3 model appeals to municipalities as the debt is on the contractor’s books. 

Edmonton council agreed in 2012 to employ the model based on the opportunity for federal funding.

“Administration looked at several delivery methods and found that P3 offered the best value for money,” the city said in a statement Friday. 

The federal government gave the Valley Line project $250 million in March 2013.

8:23Mayor Sohi responds to the most recent Valley Line LRT delay

The $1.8 billion Valley Line Southeast LRT, connecting Mill Woods and Downtown, will not open this summer as planned. The delay’s prompted by cracks discovered in 18 concrete piers supporting the elevated tracks. Mayor Amarjeet Sohi talks to us about what’s next.

Sohi said on Edmonton AM this week the model was “forced upon the city” by the federal government. It would only contribute money to the project if the city entered into a semi-private delivery model.

When it comes to the recent mistakes with the Valley Line Southeast portion, Cartmell agrees there has to be a review, audit or inspection of the project. 

“Answers need to be provided.”

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