Liberals refuse to release details on winter road maintenance fines

Watch the video above: Release information on fines for road contractors urges opposition. Alan Carter reports. 

TORONTO – The Liberals are refusing to cave to NDP demands to detail which winter road maintenance contractors were fined and where the fines were incurred.

The NDP says releasing the information will lead to greater transparency while Liberal transportation minister Glen Murray says he won’t release the information so as to remain “respectful.”

“We could release [the details]. I’ve made a decision not to release them for the same reason I don’t mention the name of any contractor when I talk about the issue,” Murray said while at Queen’s Park Wednesday. “Because these are all hard-working people who run businesses and we want to be respectful of that.”
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“It’s not helpful to create a confrontational approach with the contractors,” he added.

But John Vanthof, NDP MPP for Timiskaming-Cochrane, said releasing the information would let people know “where the problems are.”

“So if they’re fining the contractors, if they don’t have to release a specific contractor name, at least release where the fines are being done so we can see where the problems are,” he told reporters at Queen’s Park.

Read More: Government reviewing privatization of winter road maintenance

The question of whether the province’s system of privatized winter road maintenance is working was raised by Global News on Monday when contractors suggested the province’s funding was making it difficult for the roads to be kept safe.

The province currently employs several contractors to clear the province’s roads. It doesn’t tell the contractors how many trucks or employees need to be on the road but rather sets performance standards such as clearing the roads every few hours or having the pavement bare eight hours after a storm.

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Watch Global News previous stories on winter road maintenance:

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The province also has different standards for different classifications of roads. Those classifications range from “Class 1” to “Class 5.” Highway 401 would be considered a Class 1 highway and as per provincial standards would have to be salted every 1.6 hours during a storm and have bare pavement within eight hours of the storm ending. As the classes move from one through five the times grow. A Class 5 highway needs to be salted every 5.5 hours and have bare pavement within 24 hours of a storm ending.

If contractors doesn’t meet the standard, they can be fined.

But while the standards are the same across the province, Vanthof said northern Ontario can be a particularly tricky drive in the winter.

“You could be driving and it’ll be dry, and you’ll hit that imaginary contract boundary and there’s four inches of slush,” he said.

He added that just because the company hits the standard, doesn’t mean the road is safe. Doug Wipperman, a vice-president at Integrative Maintenance Operation Services – one of the companies contracted by the government – told Global News on Monday the standard time for plowing and salting can sometimes lead to salt being plowed off the road before it has time to break through the ice.

“Not at the start of a storm but during a storm, occasionally we do have to because there’s standards that we have to meet about continuous plowing. Sometimes if there isn’t an appropriate gap between salting and plowing, it may appear that some of that salt may be wasted,” he said.

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Read More: Poll suggests many people feel Ontario’s roads are becoming less safe. 

One day after Global News published the story, Murray floated the idea of changing the way winter road maintenance is delivered, suggesting a public-private partnership rather than one or the other, may be best.

And Vanthof agrees, saying he supports a public sector delivery-method but wants to see the fines detailed as proof the private contractors aren’t doing a good job.

“We’re in favour of the public sector managing the roads but let’s see what the proof is because now they’re just blaming the private contractor,” he said. “They’ve been running the roads for ten years, you can’t really blame the Harris government, they started it but these guys have increased it.”

A problem since 1996?

Darcy Romaine, a trial lawyer who has argued cases about winter road maintenance, agrees the fines and details of the contracts should be made public.

But he also said problems with winter road maintenance dates back to 1996 when the Mike Harris government shifted to the performance-basedstandards in place now. Those performance-based standards determine how frequently contractors salt and when roads need to be bare.

 “They tried to figure out what the ultimate outcome we want and about what time do we want it to happen,” he said.

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But a problem arose, Romaine said, because municipalities and the province were looking at the same problem but didn’t consult each other.

“They were doing the same thing on the municipal side, but to my knowledge both branches were not communicating with each other even though they were embarking on the same task and they came up with significantly different standards, it would seem, as a result of it,” he said.

Now provinces and municipalities have different classifications as to what constitutes a high-priority road.  Romaine said the Ministry of Transportation would classify a road with 10,000 or more vehicles a day as an important road. But to a municipality it may be a Class 3 road, meaning it gets plowed less often.

“So less priority is given to roadways that are of a value that need it. 10,000 vehicles with a 70 km/h speed limit is significant and shouldn’t be given a middle of the road treatment in our view.”

With files from Alan Carter

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