May 1, 2015 by STAFF REPORT
Ontario’s motorists faced less safe winter highway conditions after the province moved in 2009 to save money by contracting out winter road maintenance primarily to the lowest bidders— bidders that in many cases did not have sufficient equipment to do the work, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk says in a 43-page Special Report released recently.
“Over the past five years, winter highway maintenance service levels have declined from the level that Ontarians have historically been used to,” Lysyk said in the report, entitled Winter Highway Maintenance and requested by the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts.
“The Ministry of Transportation has been successful in reducing and containing escalating winter maintenance costs, but the time it takes to clear highways during and after a storm, to make them as safe as possible for motorists in winter, has increased,” Lysyk said after tabling the report.
The Ontario Road Builders Assocation, whose members also plough the province’s highways, agree with the Auditor General’s conclusion that the third-generation area maintenance contracts have serious flaws.
“For the past several years ORBA has also raised concerns about this system,” the association says in a release following the report going public. “Last winter, ORBA began to work in cooperation with the Government of Ontario toward a solution.”
According to the report, 2009/10, the most traveled highways in the province were cleared to achieve bare pavement, on average, in 2.1 hours after the end of a storm; this increased to an average of 4.7 hours after the end of a storm in the winter of 2013/14. Further, six of 20 contract areas did not even meet the province’s standard of clearing the most traveled highways within eight hours 90 per cent of the time (a generous standard when compared to other jurisdictions).
The report noted that the province itself did winter maintenance until the 1980s, when it began to privatize the work. However, the Ministry of Transportation continued to provide direction to the private sector contractors doing the work.
In 2009, a significant change was made in the method of contracting for winter highway maintenance work when the province moved to “performance-based” contracts. These contracts gave contractors full autonomy in determining how they would get the work done. The province primarily chose contractors on the basis of the lowest price bid (versus selecting a contractor based on cost and ability to provide the expected level of services).
Among the Report’s other findings: