Ford government failed to follow expert advice on highway projects, auditor general finds

Click to play video: 'Ontario budget 2022: Bethlenfalvy outlines investments in Hwy 413, other projects'
Ontario budget 2022: Bethlenfalvy outlines investments in Hwy 413, other projects
Tabling the government’s most recent budget on Thursday, Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy outlined proposed investments in Highway 413 and other proposed highway projects. These include a new twin bridge over the Welland Canal on the Queen Elizabeth Way, widening of Highway 401 in eastern Ontario, widening Highway 17 from Arnprior, Ont. To Renfrew, Ont., and reconstructing a stretch of Highway 101 in northern Ontario – Apr 28, 2022

The Ford government ignored internal expert advice when making key decisions about building or expanding highways in the province, a new report by Ontario’s auditor general has found.

The Auditor General of Ontario’s annual report discovered that the Ford government opted to pause six highways that already had funding — including two in Northern Ontario — in favour of four highways the government had prioritized.

The report also found the province “did not provide a rationale” when it removed tolls from two highways in Durham Region, confirming details previously reported by Global News.

In 2019, the province classified the widening of four provincial highways as priority projects — a decision that came at the expense of six projects that were already approved for construction.

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That decision, made by the minister of transportation’s office, came despite the fact the four government priorities were ranked lower by internal technical staff, the auditor general found.

“The combined proposals exceeded the planned 10-year budget by $245 million,” the report said.

It also noted the priorities were communicated by the government to ministry officials in meetings rather than in emails or letters while “left an incomplete record of how these decisions were made, by whom, and why,” the auditor general said.

The projects added by the government were widenings on Highway 401, Highway 3 and two sections on Highway 17. They scored an average of 469 points. The deferred plans included Highway 401, Highway 416 and Highway 11, and scored an average of 560 points.

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“We found that the government made a number of changes on highway priorities, without reviewing all the relevant facts from their experts,” auditor general Bonnie Lysyk wrote in her annual report.

The report found that deferring the six highway projects in favour of the other four resulted in $158 million in public money being moved from projects in the north down to southern Ontario.

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“Our audit found that Ontario does not yet have an overall long-term transportation strategy in place,” the report said.

The auditor general said ministry records suggest 2019 was the first time in a decade — from 2012 to 2022 — that the timing of new highway projects was not planned by technical experts.

Lysyk said it was not the last.

Infrastructure plans submitted in 2021/22 included three government priorities that experts would not have pushed at the time, according to the report. Those projects were the Bradford Bypass — listed as medium priority — and widenings on both Highway 6 and Highway 40.

The cost of current government priorities for highways, including Highway 413, is on course to exceed spending through the past decade, which was pegged at around $8.1 billion, the report said.

The Bradford Bypass and Highway 413 have been flashpoints for opposition parties and environmental advocates.

Both Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass were a key plank of the PC Party’s 2022 re-election campaign. In the run-up to June 2022, Doug Ford — with the backing of several major private sector unions — positioned his party as the only one that would deliver major construction projects.

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In its response to the auditor general, included in her annual report, the Ministry of Transportation said it “agrees to take steps to implement the recommended action items in instances where the government’s objectives do not align with the Ministry’s subject matter experts.”

The same report found the province removed tolls earlier than planned from two Durham highways had their tolls removed and without the government preparing a reason to speed up the process.

Lysyk said the government “did not identify all the key risks of removing tolls.”

As previously reported by Global News, the province had initially planned not to remove tolls from Highway 412 and 418 until the budget was balanced.

Then, ahead of the 2022 election, the Ford government sped-up its timeline.

According to the provincial documents, “the then-Minister committed to revisiting tolls once the budget was balanced.”

But as the Progressive Conservatives geared up to fight for a second consecutive mandate in June’s election, the province had a change of heart. In April, the province proclaimed it would be removing the “unfair tolls” from Highways 412 and 418.

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Two briefing notes obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request show then-transportation minister John Yakabuski and then-treasury board president Peter Bethlenfalvy discussed the removal of tolls on Oct. 22, 2018, along with two Durham Region Progressive Conservative MPPs.

The Ministry estimated that, over the next 30 years, the lost toll revenue related to these proposals would be $608 million, according to the auditor general.

Lysyk noted Ontario’s highways are the best maintained in the country with the lowest rate of fatalities.

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