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Fair warning, this is a column on the dull topic of municipal project management, one that also has the gall to suggest that Edmonton’s performance is actually pretty good these days.

No, I didn’t hit my head against a Metro Line train, though I’m sure some will question that, given that you can easily name a list of projects to counter that argument.

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And if we were eight to 12 years in the past, I think you might have a reasonable case, because that was a period when several big city initiatives — the 102 Street bridge, the Walterdale Bridge, the Northwest Police Campus, the Metro LRT, etc. — simultaneously experienced major delays, overspends or both.

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More than anything else, I suspect that series of problems cemented in many minds the belief that the city is a serial screwup when it comes to major projects.

However, the manager who was most recently in charge of project management bristles a bit at that perception.

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Adam Laughlin, you may have heard, stepped down a month ago after 18 years with the city in various capacities, including his last role as deputy city manager of “integrated infrastructure services,” a department he created back in 2016-17.

Prior to his departure, I did an interview with Laughlin. His team called to set it up.

I warned him that a column on the bureaucracy of project management might not make for riveting reading, especially one that appeared to be self congratulatory. But he insisted on the interview, suggesting the legacy he most wanted to leave was to increase Edmontonians’ confidence in the city’s ability to get good value while transforming tax dollars into public roads, recreation centres, parks and transit.

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“Despite what the entrenched belief is, the facts show we are excellent at delivering infrastructure on time and on budget, that the infrastructure we deliver is with purpose to building a great Edmonton,” he said.

“We are never satisfied that we can’t continue to improve. But this report card shows that we are in a really good spot.”

The “report card” to which he referred is actually a pair of overlapping reviews commissioned by the city — one performed by Stantec Consulting and the other by the University of Alberta’s Construction Innovation Centre.

I won’t make you suffer through all the details, but the big ticket findings are such — the city has effective oversight of its major projects; manages those projects in a way that aligns with top industry players; is transparent with the public about progress; reduces project risk through comprehensive planning; and has developed a culture of continual improvement.

Valley Line LRT
Crews test Edmonton’s Valley Line LRT at the Muttart LRT stop on June 23, 2022. The line opened in November after nearly three years of delays. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia, file

What all of that looks like when it comes to a new fire hall or transit garage can be difficult to picture, but Laughlin offered some useful context.

He said one of the most influential changes the city made was to introduce what is known as a Project Development and Delivery Model (PDDM).

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In basic terms, it’s a system in which a project must pass through different checkpoints along its journey from conception to handover. The idea is to reduce risk before cheques are signed and backhoes start digging into the ground.

Checkpoint Three, for example, is a pivotal point for council. That’s when sufficient advanced planning has been done on a project, such that managers can more accurately pinpoint the cost and timeline — thereby giving council good information to decide whether to give final approval. And for them, avoiding overruns is not just good policy, but good politics, too.

Another positive change, Laughlin said, has been to involve contractors earlier in the process. Their expertise is used to influence the design to be more cost effective, and to get a better handle on the pricing of building materials.

(The old way of managing projects tended to suffer from a deficit of information, Laughlin said. Cost and scope were set early on, then the project was turned over to a contractor — usually the low bidder — and a contingency was built into the budget to cover the unknowns).

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Of course, more robust preparation can’t prevent every problem, especially when it comes to complex mega-projects. Indeed, data-based research from Oxford University suggests just 8.5 per cent of such projects finish on time and budget. Something almost always goes wrong, such as COVID, inflation and supply chain issues in recent years.

Laughlin said if something has to give, the first choice of the city is never to jeopardize quality. Expanding the budget is also considered undesirable — though occasionally necessary — which means the time frame is most often where compromises are made.

We feel that’s the best way to protect the interests of Edmontonians, not only in the short term in terms of yearly tax bill, but in long term in terms of the sustainability of the infrastructure,” he said.  

That all sounds fine, some of you may say, but what about the southeast Valley Line LRT, which set a new threshold for frustration by being three years late?

The first thing to remember is that the city didn’t manage the project. Delivery was largely the responsibility of TransEd, the consortium of companies that was hired under a public-private partnership (P3) arrangement. The city appears to have done a good job with its contracts, making sure that TransEd, not taxpayers, were on the hook for the overruns.

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As for suggestions the city contributed to the tardiness by being too stringent with TransEd, especially in the final months, Laughlin said it was the city’s job to ensure adherence to quality so that the line would open successfully. And so far — fingers crossed — there have been no major operational issues, unlike the situation in Ottawa, which rushed the opening of its LRT line and has suffered the consequences.

Yellowhead Trail
Crews continue to work on Yellowhead Trail near 149 Street in Edmonton on Sept. 14, 2023. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

Many of you might also challenge Laughlin’s position by mentioning Blatchford, the city-led housing development that is well behind projections and facing questions of affordability.

On that one, Laughlin said he is “comfortable with the path and progress” of Blatchford, which he believes has been held back by a slow housing market. Fair enough, though I think Edmontonians are going to want to see that path and progress substantially accelerate this year, or else the city will need to consider new approaches to get construction humming.

Whether you agree or not with Laughlin, it is worth noting some of his final comments to me, that he felt OK leaving his job because believes Edmonton is in good shape with its project management. His biggest worry, he said, is around some of the ugly narratives that continue to spread about the city’s capabilities.

Either way, the city will have plenty of opportunities over the next few years to change perceptions — from new bike lanes and recreation centres to the Hawrelak Park redevelopment and the High Level Bridge refurbishment.

“Construction is not an exact science. It’s not a Lego set,” Laughlin said.

“This environment (we) are in where if you are behind a keyboard, there is a dismissiveness of people working at the city doing the right thing and delivering excellent service and a lack of appreciation and support for that or awareness of that — that is my biggest concern.”

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