Spring is not a time of year when we traditionally talk about snow. It’s when meteorologists try to take credit for sunny weekends.
That all changed this past April, when Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released her report on efforts to clear snow from the province’s 17,000-km highway network.
Her research found that the quality of winter maintenance has been dropping for five years.
“The ministry has been successful in reducing and containing escalating winter maintenance costs, but this has been achieved at the expense of a reduction in the timeliness of ensuring Ontario highways are safe for motorists in the winter,” the report says.
The Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has been outsourcing highway maintenance since the 1980s, but several related checks and balances have eroded along the way.
Under the existing regime, bidders have been able to decide on the number of snow plows, salters and other equipment they use, not to mention the volume of de-icing solutions and salt they apply.
Contractors took an average of 2.1 hours to clear highways down to bare pavement in 2009/10. By 2013/14, they took an average of 4.7 hours to clear the way.
There was so much pressure to cut costs, many suppliers felt squeezed into reducing equipment levels. In one case a contractor lost out on a bid by $700,000, despite the fact that it proposed to use 22 additional pieces of equipment.
The ministry is now spending another $1.7 million a year to pay the successful bidder for 13 extra pieces of equipment.
“If the second-lowest bidder hadn’t lost out on the contract, the area could have been served with significantly more equipment at a significantly lower cost,” the report found.
Nobody will argue that government budgets need to be controlled, and private businesses need some flexibility in the way they fill contract requirements. But when highway safety is at stake, governments need to be careful not to sacrifice more important goals in the name of a few dollars.
In a country that can see such extremes in weather, and has the possibility of receiving winter-like driving conditions for up to six months or more some years, the regulators must ensure that the roadways are kept as clear and as safe as possible, 24 hours a day.
This is important for all road users, but even more vital for the men and women of the transportation industry. The road is their workplace, and for the sake of a few dollars, their workplaces must not be allowed to become unsafe. If a private company were to cut an internal budget that led to unsafe work conditions, workplace health and safety regulations would hold them accountable, and no less should be expected from government regulators.
In Minister Steven Del Duca’s defense, he has taken ownership of the report and has pledged to ensure that the province will work to address the issues in the report as soon as possible.
We at the PMTC are glad that the Minister has acknowledged the issues raised need addressed, and sincerely hope the issue of winter maintenance is able to be tackled properly prior to the next winter driving season.
Mike Millian is president of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, the only national association that represents the views and interests of the private fleet industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.