Government keeps Evergreen Line costs, overruns shrouded in secrecy

No disclosure of public funding details for $1.4 billion rapid transit project
Construction on the $1.4 billion Evergreen Line near its tunnel access in Port Moody | Rob Kruyt

The BC Liberal government is refusing to show how much it has spent so far on the Evergreen Line.

The Millennium Line SkyTrain extension to Coquitlam and Port Moody was budgeted at $1.43 billion, but the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure censored the spending breakdown from the April financial summary, which was released last week under Freedom of Information.

The broadly worded request sought the most recent balance sheet, statement of cash flow and forecast for the project.

The financial summary restates only the budgeted amounts already published as contributions from the B.C. government ($585,646,731), TransLink ($400 million) and the federal government ($417 million).

The ministry maintains that disclosure of the costs to taxpayers for the 11-kilometre line would harm the financial or economic interests of the government, the business interests of a third party or intergovernmental relations. The summary shows that the Lincoln station construction budget is $28 million, but that breakdown is similarly censored to avoid what the government claims would be harm to third-party, public-body finances and intergovernmental relations.

The website for PPP Canada, a federal Crown corporation, said it is contributing up to $7 million for the station near Coquitlam Centre. A May 10 Morguard (TSX:MRC) presentation shows the City of Coquitlam is contributing $15.32 million (of which $7.79 million is cash) and Coquitlam Centre PRL (Pensionfund Realty Ltd.) is contributing $12.68 million. The province is responsible for cost overruns.

“It’s always suspicious when government hides documents that should be readily available to taxpayers paying the bills on projects,” said Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman. “This is a taxpayer project. It’s our money; we deserve to know how it’s spent.”

At a news conference in late April, Peter Fassbender, the BC Liberal minister responsible for TransLink, stated that the “project will be on time and on budget.”

In February 2009, the government said construction was scheduled to begin in late 2010 and be completed in late 2014.

The project was supposed to be finished by next month. But in mid-February 2015, the government announced a delay to fall 2016 because of tunnelling troubles under Port Moody. Those complications worsened in spring 2015 when more sinkholes led to the tunnel-boring machine being stalled for five months.

In late November, when tunnel-boring finally finished, the Evergreen Line’s service date was delayed until early 2017.

The project is officially being built under a fixed-price contract with a consortium led by SNC-Lavalin (TSX:SNC), but the troubled Montreal engineering and construction company already reported cost overruns in August 2015.

Its infrastructure and construction division recorded a $27 million loss on the second quarter, partly because of the “challenging soil conditions.” In April, BIV reported that the province is in mediation talks with SNC-Lavalin about the overruns.

SNC-Lavalin agreed to take on the tunnelling risk, based on a Golder Associates environmental report, but it encountered what it claimed were unforeseen sub-surface conditions.

Access to megaproject status reports available – at a price – government says

Other aspects of the Evergreen Line project are also under a shroud of secrecy. The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure refuses to disclose the dollar figures for construction change orders. It also rejected an application to freely publish the monthly project status reports and will not allow those reports to be viewed in a supervised reading room.

Analyst David Kotorynski of Information Access Operations, the government’s central freedom of information (FOI) office, issued invoices claiming it would cost $45 and $60, respectively, to see separate monthly reports for December and January 2016. He issued another invoice that claimed it would cost $810 to see the monthly status reports between January 2014 and November 2015.

The fee estimates are the subject of a complaint filed with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Kotorynski claimed verbally that the monthly project status report was 800 pages, but he did not include that on the invoice. Internal documents, obtained on a separate FOI request, show that the monthly status report is 100 pages. There are seven supplemental updates, ranging from one page to 350 pages, for an additional 586 pages.

An April 14 email from records manager/project co-ordinator Peter Mountstevens to senior analyst Marion Ashton stated: “The monthly reports are submitted as stand-alone documents. To alter them would render them no longer monthly status reports. I do not believe I could, or should, edit [Evergreen Rapid Transit’s] documents but even if I could it would incur additional time to author a new and specific report.”

“It’s just excuse-making by people who don’t want to tell taxpayers where their money is going,” Bateman said. “I have no time or energy for bureaucrats who hide things for the sake of hiding them. The only logical thing you can conclude is that this thing is over budget or their change orders are more than they expected, and they don’t want to share that because they don’t want to be caught out in a lie.”

Both Transport Minister Todd Stone and Deputy Minister Grant Main have not responded to interview requests.

While the B.C. government stubbornly and routinely issues invoices for public information, times are changing federally.

On March 31, 2015, a Federal Court judge ruled that the federal government could no longer charge fees for computerized records. On May 5, the federal Liberal government formally abolished fees for records, but it still levies a $5 application charge.

When Premier Christy Clark won the BC Liberal leadership in February 2011, she said transparency was her priority. In July 2011, she issued an open government edict to public servants that stated, in part, “after all, it’s taxpayers’ money and it’s taxpayers’ information.”

On June 16, Clark announced $308 million in provincial tax funds toward the first phase of TransLink expansion, including the design and planning for the proposed Broadway subway and Surrey light rail. The Broadway project was estimated at $1.98 billion in 2012, and the Surrey proposal’s estimate recently rose earlier this year by $500 million to $2.6 billion. Expert reports that include the latest cost estimates are due to TransLink by the end of June.

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