‘Super consultant’ to testify as blockbuster week at LRT inquiry kicks off

WATCH LIVE | Day 11 of the inquiry

It’s expected to be a blockbuster week of testimony at the public inquiry into Ottawa’s light rail system as a number of well-known Ottawa officials answer questions under oath.

Mayor Jim Watson, former OC Transpo head John Manconi and city councillors Allan Hubley, Diane Deans, and Catherine McKenney are all household names, but Monday will feature someone who has kept a lower profile: Brian Guest. 

The “super consultant” made Ottawa headlines regularly a decade ago as his small firm Boxfish was handed contract after contract to advise the City of Ottawa.

Details of what that work entailed were hard for reporters to come by at the time, but it was determined he advised on city budgets and OC Transpo cuts and spent a lot of time in the fledgling rail office.

Now, after two weeks of unprecedented transparency as the inquiry shines light into every corner of the Confederation Line project, lawyers have established Guest as a key player. 

In fact, on the very first day of hearings, the first witness had been speaking less than half an hour when a commission lawyer introduced his name.

Brian Guest is a principal at Boxfish Infrastructure Group, where his specialties include large public-private infrastructure projects such as Ottawa’s light rail line. (Boxfish Infrastructure Group)

Guest has since been mentioned in emails about what transpired in meetings and in testimony about choices made for Ottawa’s light rail system.

That was during the Stage 1 procurement a decade ago, but he also reappeared for Stage 2 several years later.

Guest was called “a frighteningly brilliant guy” during testimony by Infrastructure Ontario advisor Rob Pattison.

Ottawa’s former deputy city manager Nancy Schepers, meanwhile, described how she counted on him for his big-picture thinking and ability to challenge staff to come up with new ideas.

“It was incredible to me how one individual could look at city budgets, study them in-depth and almost understand them better than the staff who prepared them,” she said, trying to explain Guest’s strategic mind. His presence in the rail office a decade ago was “amazing,” she added.

Guest’s resumé

More than once, witnesses have been asked about Guest’s credentials and why he played such a central advisory role in Ottawa’s Confederation Line if he wasn’t a lawyer, engineer or accountant.

In his own interview ahead of the inquiry hearings, co-lead counsel Kate McGrann asked him to describe his experience with public-private partnerships — also known as P3s — before Stage 1.

“I didn’t have P3 experience,” Guest answered, although he had worked on the original O-Train (now known as the Trillium Line) that opened in 2001.

Guest’s work had predominantly been in advising politicians: first when Bob Chiarelli was chair of the Ottawa-Carleton region in the late 1990s, then as part of the team that surrounded Prime Minister Paul Martin in the early 2000s.

I’m modestly good at understanding things quickly and framing them up for decision-makers and talking about … how to get their priorities on the table.– Brian Guest in interview with light rail commission counsel

In Hubley’s pre-hearing interview, the councillor remembered being a community association president and meeting Guest in the mid-2000s when Chiarelli was mayor of the newly amalgamated city. 

Two Chiarelli staffers, Guest and Brendan McGuinty, had a reputation for being “very good at their jobs” and were referred to as the “Killer Bs,” Hubley remarked, although he didn’t know the genesis of the nickname.

When Jim Watson transitioned into the mayor’s office in late 2010, Guest also helped him. 

Guest said in the pre-inquiry interview he had spent his career advising people who make decisions on behalf of taxpayers, although he’s also known to have worked for the failed waste-to-energy company Plasco.

“I’m modestly good at understanding things quickly and framing them up for decision-makers and talking about … how to get their priorities on the table and make sure that they are well aware of all the things in detail, in the detail they need in order to make choices,” Guest said.

Justice William Hourigan, top, looks on before the start of the first day of proceedings at the inquiry into Ottawa’s troubled LRT system June 13, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

And while a lack of P3 knowledge might have been true in 2011, it’s no longer the case. 

From Ottawa’s LRT, Guest went on to Metrolinx in the Greater Toronto Area to work on more multi-billion dollar projects: the Eglinton Crosstown, Finch West and Hurontario light rail lines.

He gave up his vice-president title at the government agency after a Toronto Star investigation in January revealed Metrolinx also handed multi-million dollar Boxfish contracts.

Email to Bob Chiarelli

Before that Metrolinx development, however, and as the prospect of an inquiry was debated at city council last fall, CBC News reported on a letter Guest sent his former boss. 

“You know who you are screwing with this support for the judicial inquiry right? Someone who has always been your loyal friend and servant,” Guest wrote in a personal email to Chiarelli on Oct. 16.

The Ontario government went on to call the inquiry in November and Chiarelli has since filed papers to run for mayor again this fall.

Just as CBC had done, McGrann asked Guest to explain what he meant by the term “screwed.”

“It was meant out of a concern, and it was a personal email from me to him as somebody who really cares about him, his legacy,” Guest said in the May pre-inquiry interview.

A red and white light rail train on the tracks in the distance.
A Confederation Line train travels along the tracks in Ottawa June 22, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Guest explained he felt the push for a judicial inquiry, which Coun. Catherine McKenney sought at the time, was politically motivated by New Democrat criticisms of the public-private partnership model and intended to “get at the mayor.” 

“I thought that Bob was going along … with something that was very poorly motivated and very unlikely to help. In fact, much more likely to hurt,” he said. 

LRT involvement

The public is now hearing long days of damning testimony about the Confederation Line contract, the modifications made to the Alstom train design and how the system began carrying passengers despite outstanding issues.

Commission lawyers have returned to some common themes, some of which involve Guest.

For instance, lawyers have argued Watson took a preliminary $2.1 billion estimate for LRT in 2009 dollars, and made it a concrete price tag — with the slogan “on time on budget” — during his 2010 mayoral campaign.

Guest agrees budget was “a really big priority” and is credited with coming up with the July 2011 idea for a shallower light rail tunnel that didn’t need to go deep under downtown garages.

That cut significant costs and meant riders wouldn’t travel so far underground.

The inquiry has also learned that during that procurement period, the city proposed a “geo-technical risk ladder” that Schepers explained Guest helped to structure. 

All three bidders for Stage 1 agreed to take on the highest level of risk and had an incentive to do so in the price-driven competition that included an “affordability cap.”

The tunnel under Queen Street, shown here under construction, was originally supposed to take a different, much deeper and costlier route before changes were made pre-contract. (CBC)

Later, Boxfish co-wrote with Deloitte the Stage 1 “lessons learned” report for the city in 2015. Guest was also paid to give the city advice about dealing with major claims arising from the sinkhole and Stage 1 being late.

Boxfish then signed on for discussions as the City of Ottawa set up the Stage 2 LRT contracts, when his brother-in-law Chris Swail, whom the commission also interviewed, led the rail office.

In order to have Rideau Transit Group take on maintenance of both stages, the city did something former Rideau Transit Group CEO Riccardo Cosentino testified was “very unusual”: it assumed RTG’s debt from third-party lenders in a “debt swap.” Guest took part in conversations at the time.

Guest is set to testify today at 2 p.m., with city rail director Michael Morgan appearing in the morning. 

Manconi follows Tuesday, a panel of the aforementioned city councillors is Wednesday and the mayor is scheduled to testify Thursday afternoon before the long weekend.


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