When the Nipigon Bridge failed in January of this year, it brought road traffic across northern Ontario to a screeching halt, as truckers tried to find alternatives to the only road route for cargo heading east from Thunder Bay.
In her annual report released today, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said that failure shouldn't have been a surprise: the government's procedures for contracting work and for ensuring the quality and safety of roads and bridges made it, or something like it, more likely.
While the Ministry of Transportation drops the ball on roads and highways, Metrolinx — the GTA's regional planning agency, which Lysyk notes now accounts for one of every seven capital dollars on the provincial ledger — is providing little oversight of its own capital projects, routinely paying for work done badly or, in some cases, not even verifying the work has been done at all.
"We know general staff in the Ministry of Transportation aren't happy with what they've seen in the past," Lysyk told reporters Wednesday. "We were surprised with what we found."
"They need to make changes so that the taxpayer comes first," Lysyk added.
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The government had already swung into damage-control mode last week, announcing governance changes at Metrolinx to improve oversight. (Why, yes, now that you mention it, the government does get an early look at the report, so they knew what was coming.)
But the auditor general's findings on the government's infrastructure track record are damning and extensive. The highlights include:
- A contractor who installed basic structural elements in a Pickering bridge upside down, later damaged glass elements of the bridge, and still received nearly full payment from Metrolinx for the job
- Paying bonuses to road builders simply for using the types of asphalt specified in their contracts, while also giving the contractors ample opportunity to fudge the lab tests that determine those bonuses
- Letting contractors hire the engineers needed to certify the safe completion of their work, despite cases such as the Nipigon Bridge in which certified projects failed due to incorrect work or materials
Lysyk tallies up $48 billion the government has allocated for repairs and new construction of both roads and transit over the next decade, but reading her report, there's plenty of reason to be skeptical that enormous sum will be well spent.
The Nipigon Bridge is, at least, back in business: the repairs were completed in a month and a half, re-opening to two lanes of traffic in late February. The government is proceeding with construction of a second bridge (to bring the highway to four lanes) and has started the environmental assessment process for an emergency detour route in case of a future failure that closes the bridge again.
On the transportation side, the government’s increasingly cozy relationship with road builders (who, Lysyk notes, spend large sums of their own lobbying Queen’s Park) is part of the reason: transportation ministry staff told Lysyk’s office they believed the “collaborative" culture between the ministry and contractors had gone too far.
This led, for example, to the government changing its policies on fines for substandard work so that the province would only collect them after a contractor had exhausted their appeal options — while also making the appeals process more favourable to contractors. As a result, contractors appealed many more fines in the hope of delaying or avoiding the penalties.
The government is also dragging its feet on implementing the kinds of tests that would improve road performance, according to the attorney general — saying the industry needs more time to adjust to higher standards even though the ministry has been proposing these changes for nearly a decade.
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And as the government shifts from its traditional priority of highway building to a greater emphasis on transit, it would be a relief if the auditor's review of Metrolinx had better news. It doesn't.
According to the report, Metrolinx failed on basic measures of how it's overseeing contracts for major project spending. Standard controls in both the public and private sector — like prohibiting payments that exceed approved contract budgets — were weak or missing entirely.
The transit agency not only fails to properly oversee projects in construction, it also rarely recovers cost overruns from delinquent contractors. The agency doesn't even keep problem contractors from bidding on new contracts.
Metrolinx’s relationship with CP and CN railways, which own some of the track Metrolinx uses to serve Hamilton, Milton, Richmond Hill, and Kitchener, was also singled out for scrutiny. Lysyk found Metrolinx isn't taking basic steps to ensure taxpayers aren't getting taken for a ride — for instance, by ensuring rail companies only bill for work related to Metrolinx's own projects, and aren't padding government contracts with work undertaken to improve private services. Nor does it get the information needed to ensure CP and CN are billing them competitively, or regularly conduct physical inspections of its contracted work.
All of this would be bad enough for any government, but it’s especially damning for the Liberals. Infrastructure, and especially transportation infrastructure, was the issue on which Premier Kathleen Wynne fought and won her 2014 election. The Liberals — correctly — argued that inaction on transit building was hurting the economic core of the province, preventing workers from getting to jobs and goods from getting to market.
But our crucial need for more and better infrastructure isn't an excuse for inefficiency, much less leniency toward fraud to make friends for the governing party. Voters who supported a platform to build regional roads and transit links didn't give the Liberals a blank cheque. The government has an obligation to take infrastructure spending seriously, and not just show up for the ribbon-cuttings.
This story has been updated with information about repairs to the Nipigon Bridge.