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Through good and bad, John Manconi has stood by OC Transpo — but the ride's about to end – CBC.ca

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Today’s transit commission meeting was already shaping up to be a testy one.

Six weeks ago, an LRT train derailed at Tunney’s Pasture station due to an axle bearing problem. The Confederation Line shut down for an entire work week, and more than a quarter of OC Transpo’s fleet of 39 light rail vehicles ended up needing repairs.

So when John Manconi takes the virtual stage Monday morning at his last transit commission meeting — and one of the final public appearances in his 30-year career at the city — he’s already expecting to be in the hot seat.

And then, less than 24 hours before Monday’s meeting, another train derailed just west of Tremblay station. No one was hurt, thankfully, but the pictures of a rail car off the tracks, smashing through a fence and hitting a switch box, are shocking.

It can’t be the note on which Manconi wanted to depart.

Three-decade career

Manconi is one of a dying breed.

Born and raised in Ottawa, he’s spent his entire 32-year professional career with the municipality, starting in 1989 inspecting backyard drainage systems in the pre-amalgamation city of Nepean.

Even in that junior job, Manconi says he picked up skills on “creating win-win environments” and dealing with parties in conflict.

“Because where there’s a drainage dispute between two neighbours, it can get very ugly,” he said in an interview last week, before the most recent derailment.

Manconi rose through the ranks over three decades, overseeing road maintenance and snow removal. In 2007, he was named the general manager of public works, where he was successful and well-liked. In 2012, the year council finally decided to move ahead with LRT, he became head of OC Transpo.

John Manconi speaks to reporters in 2014, long before he would become the public face of the city’s LRT network and its many missteps. (CBC)

Face of LRT problems

When a bureaucrat becomes a household name, it’s almost never for good reason.

Manconi managed to sail along for a few years without too much controversy as OC Transpo boss. He even emerged generally unscathed from the Rideau Street sinkhole incident where, miraculously, no one was hurt and most people blamed LRT contractor Rideau Transit Group for tunneling under the road.

But in mid-2017, as it was becoming clear that the LRT wouldn’t meet its contractual due date of May 2018 — it would end up being 465 days late — Manconi started to come under pressure, even though the line was being built by a private consortium. 

The LRT contract gave all communications power about the project to the city, presumably so it could control the messaging. But it also made Manconi the face of both the delays and a seemingly endless list of problems that cropped up after it opened in September 2019.

People have called for his resignation — including a citizen transit commissioner. He’s been verbally abused when he’s been out with his kids.

Asked if he thought it was fair to have been the bearer of repeatedly bad news, Manconi said it goes with the job. 

“I’m pretty recognizable wherever I go,” said Manconi, who’s well over six feet.

It’s with whoever sits in this chair. And you need to be prepared to do that.”– John Manconi on accountability

He says can take it, but wonders how many others are willing to put up with the constant criticism and pressure.

“The phone never stops ringing,” he said. “I don’t think everybody wants that lifestyle because it can be hard on you.”

Still, Manconi says, “you can’t contract out accountability.”

Rideau Transit may have built the Confederation Line, and its maintenance arm is supposed to keep the line in good shape for the next 30 years, but the OC Transpo brand belongs to the city.

“The responsibility and the accountability to the customers, the taxpayers, council, the media, is not with a private consortium,” he said.

“It’s with whoever sits in this chair. And you need to be prepared to do that.”

John Manconi addresses reporters on Sept. 16, 2019, at Blair Station after the first weekday commute on the Confederation LRT line. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

On accountability

Many people don’t directly blame the city for the LRT being late, or even breaking down. But they do blame them — and Manconi as the head of OC Transpo — for not being more upfront about what was happening and not overseeing RTG’s work.

Take September 2018. Councillors running for re-election that fall had been telling their constituents over the summer that the LRT would be launching in November. An August memo from OC Transpo updating the project raised no red flags.

In fact, bus drivers were issued pink slips, buses were taken off the road, routes were redirected, all with the understanding that the LRT was opening imminently.

So imagine the outrage from both councillors and the public when they learned LRT wouldn’t be opening until the following year.

There was one big question on everyone’s mind: how could the city not know the Confederation Line wouldn’t be ready? 

We still don’t have an answer to that, and it’s not clear that the fault lies solely with Manconi. But the fact the city, to this day, still appears to be caught unaware when it comes to issues with the train is a serious problem.

Asked how the city can have better oversight with these sorts of undertakings, Manconi said that “this obsession with when’s it opening has to stop.” Most people “can’t even predict when their kitchen renovations are going to get done,” he said, let alone a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project.

Perhaps. But there are still dates written into those contracts, and the public should be told when those deadlines won’t be met. 

OC Transpo general manager John Manconi speaks at a transit commission meeting at Ottawa city hall Dec. 18, 2019. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Taking the long view

Asked if it was disappointing to be leaving a long career with the city on a down note, Manconi — whose last day is Sept. 30 — said that until the August derailment, the Confederation Line had been working well for the last year.

Anyway, these days, he’s taking the long view.

Sitting in the concourse at Pimisi station, Manconi said he’s proud of the natural space, public art and involvement of the local Indigenous community there — a first for the city.

He points out that the new central library will be close by, and maybe even one day, an NHL hockey arena. 

The Leitrim station being built as part of the Trillium Line extension is located in an open field, Manconi added, but in a few years it will be “surrounded by houses and a community, and those people are going to be using transit forever.”

That’s city building. It’s messy and there are some pretty big bumps along the way. And Manconi insists that if people just give it time, the Confederation Line will hold up to comparisons with transit networks in places like Toronto, Boston and New York.

“You know, you have to have some glitches, but it’s a phenomenal system,” said Manconi. “And in a few years, people [will] look back and say, ‘Thank goodness we did that.'”

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Canada competition watchdog may have to rely more on litigation – top official

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 Competition Bureau Canada watchdog may have to rely more on litigation after its proposed veto of a takeover was overturned, and this could make life harder for companies seeking to merge, the agency head said on Wednesday.

Matthew Boswell, commissioner of competition, noted his bureau had tried this year to block western Canadian oil and gas waste firm Secure Energy Services Inc from buying rival Tervita Corp.

Secure then turned to the independent Competition Tribunal, which denied the bureau’s injunction and underscored “the high bar that needs to be met to prevent mergers … that we allege are anti-competitive,” he said.

The tribunal, he said, had acted so quickly that the bureau had not had time to present all its evidence, raising valid questions about the state of competition laws in Canada.

“This decision has significant implications for how we conduct future merger reviews, particularly in cases where there are competition concerns,” Boswell said in a speech to the Canadian Bar Association.

“This may mean that we must pursue a litigation-focused approach that is costly and less predictable for merging parties,” he added.

Secure relied on the so-called efficiencies defense, which is unique to Canada. Boswell said this procedure allowed the tribunal to allow an anti-competitive merger to proceed if the transaction was deemed to produce efficiency gains that were greater than its anti-competitive effects.

“The efficiencies defense raises significant practical

challenges for the Bureau to estimate and measure anti-competitive harm,” he said. “(We should) ask ourselves whether our competition laws are really working in the best interest of all Canadians.”

The bureau is an independent law enforcement agency set up to ensure fair competition. It investigates price fixing, bid-rigging and mergers, among other matters.

 

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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Canadian home price growth slows to near standstill in September

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Canadian home prices barely rose in September from August as a recent slowdown in housing sales weighed, data showed on Wednesday.

The Teranet-National Bank Composite House Price Index, which tracks repeat sales of single-family homes in 11 major Canadian markets, rose 0.1% in September from August, marking the fourth consecutive month in which the monthly price increase was lower than the previous month.

“The slowdown in price growth can be linked to the slowdown in housing sales reported in recent months by the Canadian Real Estate Association,” Daren King, an economist at National Bank of Canada, said in a statement.

Eight of the 11 major markets rose, led by a 1% gain for Winnipeg, while prices were stable in Montreal and fell in Vancouver as well as in Ottawa-Gatineau. It was the first time in seven months that gains were not seen in all 11 regions.

On an annual basis, the index was up 17.3%, decelerating after it notched record annual growth in August. It was paced by a 31.7% gain in Halifax and a 28.0% gain in Hamilton.

 

(Reporting by Fergal Smith; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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Oil rallies as U.S. crude stocks decline in tight market

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Oil prices rallied on Wednesday after U.S. Crude Inventories at the nation’s largest storage site hit their lowest level in three years and nationwide fuel stocks fell sharply, a signal of rising demand.

Brent crude futures settled at $85.82 a barrel, a gain of 0.9% or 74 cents and the highest since October 2018.

November U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude, which expires on Wednesday, settled at $83.87, up 91 cents, or 1.1%. The more active WTI contract for December settled up 98 cents to $83.42 a barrel.

 Crude prices have risen as supply has tightened, with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries maintaining a slow increase in supply rather than intervening to add more barrels to the market, and as U.S. demand has ramped up.

Globally, refiners have been boosting output thanks to high margins, one that can only be restrained by maintenance. U.S. refining capacity use dropped in the most recent week, but analysts noted that supply may continue to tighten if U.S. refiners also pick up processing again.

“Stronger demand and concerns about a drop in inventories when refiners were already running a low rate during maintenance season is making people concerned about what will happen when refiners have to ramp up production to meet what is very strong demand for gasoline and distillate,” said Phil Flynn, senior energy analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago.

U.S. crude stocks fell by 431,000 barrels in the most recent week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said, against expectations for an increase, and gasoline stocks plunged by more than 5 million barrels as refiners cut processing due to maintenance. [EIA/S]

U.S. stocks at the Cushing, Oklahoma delivery hub hit their lowest level since October 2018. Gasoline stocks are now at their lowest since November 2019, the EIA said, while distillate stocks fell to levels not seen since early 2020.

Oil prices have also been swept up in surging natural gas and coal prices worldwide in anticipation that power generators may switch to oil to provide electricity.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of energy said users switching from gas to oil could account for demand of 500,000-600,000 barrels per day, depending on winter weather and prices of other sources of energy.

(Additional reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Koustav Samanta in Singapore; Editing by Andrea Ricci, Kirsten Donovan and David Gregorio)

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