Government reviewing privatization of winter road maintenance

Watch the video above: Ontario considers adding more public workers to clear snowy highways. Alan Carter reports. 

TORONTO – The Ontario government is reconsidering the privatization of winter road maintenance in the province after a report from Global News raised questions about road safety.

A poll released exclusively to Global News Monday suggested more Ontarians than not feel road quality in the province is getting worse.

Now, Transportation Minister Glen Murray suggests the model which delivers winter road maintenance could change.

“We’re looking at changing the mix potentially and we’re in the middle of a major evaluation right now which could include things like a managed contract system, where we would hire private contractors but direct the standards and be more directive in the service,” he said.

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Right now the province hires contractors to plow and salt the roads. The province doesn’t tell them how many trucks to use or how many employees they should have but judges their work on whether or not the roads are cleared and the plows are running.

On Monday, members of the Ontario Road Builders Association (ORBA) told Global News that cutbacks ingovernment funding were making it increasingly difficult for them to meet those standards. Murray says if that’s the case, the government is willing to change the system.

Watch: (Mar 24) New poll shows four in ten drivers in Ontario aren’t satisfied with road conditions

“In many provinces, and in many municipalities there’s a balance between private sector service delivery and public sector service delivery,” he said.

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While he floated the idea of a public-private sector mix, he also suggested that where private contractors were meeting or exceeding targets – they could keep them. Where they weren’t hitting targets, they could be replaced.

Indeed the Auditor-General will soon be looking at the issue of winter road maintenance in the province, NDP MPP France Gélinas said Tuesday.

Gélinas suggested fines aren’t enough and some contractors are willing to take the fine rather than do the work.

“We’re hearing people telling us it is easier for the contractor take the penalty than to do the work,” she said.

“Contractors are deciding that they will pay the $5,000 penalty rather than to try and keep up.”

And while Murray laid the blame on private contractors wholly concerned with the fines, PC MPPJeff Yurek suggested that Murray is responsible for making sure the targets are hit. If not, then he wants a public discussion on how to fix the problem.

“They are both equal partners in this process,” he said. “The minister of transportation is  a partner with the private corporations to clean our snow from the roads and he’s got to make sure the standards are the best they can be for the province, the service levels are up to date and that the work is being done on time.”

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Possible Lawsuit?

Personal injury lawyers contacted Global News Monday suggesting both the government and private contractors could be opening the doorto litigation if safe standards are not maintained in road maintenance.

“They definitely can bring an action against the provincial government for not clearing the snow away. The courts have already decided that the provincial government has a duty to clear the roadways in due time,” said Isaac Zisckind, lead lawyer at Diamond & Diamond Personal Injury. “So if there is an accident that is caused by failure to clean up the snow from the streets or to clean up potholes, etc they may be responsible and on the hook for a lot of money.”

And that’s exactly why the government is looking at a potential overhaul of the privatized system, Murray said Tuesday.

“If we’re going to manage the liability on behalf of the people of Ontario…. then I would rather have that done directly by the public sector who is directly accountable to the legislature and the people of Ontario than a contractor who at this point in time has not met the terms of the contracts they’ve signed,” he said.

With files from Alan Carter

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