Canada-based engineer-builder  SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. finds itself in a still-unfolding Ottawa munnicipal bid controversy after recently published evaluation documents appear to show its team won the $1.1-billion Trillium light-rail expansion despite a less-than-stellar technical score. The document dump came after months of political controversy following a CBC report last year that city officials awarded the public-private contract to the SNC-Lavalin-led consortium despite a technical score below the minimum 70% requirement. 

The furor comes with the firm already in the spotlight for its work in Ottawa as part of another team that completed initial phases last fall of the Confederation light-rail system, on which myriad problems, including frozen switches, have been reported. Still, there is no indication of any issues with SNC-Lavalin’s work on the 9-mile Trillium Line project that began last year, with city officials having mounted a spirited defense of the contract. The consortium’s Trillium bid was at least $71 million below the second lowest bid and hundreds of millions below the third and highest bid among three big consortia, city officials say. 

Under the terms of the P3 project, SNC-Lavalin is responsible for design, construction and maintenance. The team “received the highest overall score of all three proponents and was the only bid that met the city’s affordability threshold,” officials said in a statement that accompanied release of the bid documents. 

The consortium’s low technical scores on the eight-station Trillium line were a result of errors, the importance of which has been hotly debated. The team scored below 70% in two of four technical categories, 63.6% in design and 65.4% in its maintenance and rehabilitation plan, city evaluation documents show. The bid included a light rail station with no stairs or elevators and an inadequate level of detail on a signaling and train control system. An SNC-Lavalin spokesperson did not return a request for comment. 

The consortium technical scores were still within striking distance, said experts brought in for a background briefing of Ottawa’s city council. It also scored higher on key financial aspects, which pulled up the overall team score. But city officials have acknowledged use of a discretionary provision in the bid process to waive the consortium’s too-low technical grades.  Officials say the project will not be rebid.

The decision by Ottawa officials to overlook the consortium score issue has sparked some criticism, not unusual in public private partnerships, says Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and a P3 project expert. While some errors appeared “sloppy,” he says that financial criteria are the “main driver” of who wins P3 project bids. Typically, there is not as wide a variation in technical scores, Siemiatycki contends. By contrast, on the financial side, there can be big differences. “The way the P3 model is designed now the financial scores are really what drives the overall selection,” he says. “Essentially driving down the cost is the key.”