Quebec to boost economy by taking shortcuts to fast-forward on infrastructure projects

Bill 61, tabled Wednesday, would allow the government to move quickly on more than 200 projects, bypassing some of the provisions of the Environment Quality Act and skipping tendering. Québec Solidaire sounded the alarm over that, and the auditor general issued her own warning.

Stimulus bill would allow projects to move ahead and bypass certain rules under the Environment Quality Act

Following a two-month shutdown of construction sites across Quebec, like the Réseau express metropolitain (REM) in Brossard, the province now wants to speed up the administrative process to get major projects off the ground. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The Quebec government wants to get major infrastructures projects back up and running, putting more people back to work, in an effort to relaunch the province's economy nearly three months into the COVID-19 crisis.

If passed, Bill 61, the stimulus package tabled Wednesday by Treasury Board President Christian Dubé, will allow the government to bypass some of the usual checks and balances for major spending projects, to get them off the ground as soon as possible.

​The proposed legislation streamlines some of the provisions under Quebec's Environment Quality Act, in order to obtain speedy authorization to move ahead with certain projects, and allows government ministries to move ahead quickly with the expropriation of property.

Dubé said at a news conference Wednesday that doesn't mean the province would skirt around environmental laws, but would simply allow the government to be "more agile."

"If a species is endangered, we will not go there," said Dubé.

He said all major projects identified by the Ministry of Environment would still need to be evaluated by Quebec's environmental review board, known as the BAPE.

"But if there is an environmental review," he said, "could we possibly accelerate the steps to get to the BAPE?"

Bill 61 would apply to 202 projects that were already included in the 2020-2030 Quebec Infrastructure Plan — for example, the extension of the Montreal Metro's Blue Line and the construction of a bridge between Quebec City and l'Île d'Orléans. 

In addition to road-building and public transit projects, Dubé said, the government wants to press ahead with the renovation of schools, as well as the construction of 48 new long-term care homes across the province.

"I think everyone realizes that we need to provide seniors with an environment that is different than the ones offered in CHSLDs," Dubé said.

Quebec Treasury Board President Christian Dubé says the government wants to strip away some of the bureaucracy surrounding the awarding of public contracts to allow major infrastructure projects to move ahead quickly. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Skipping tenders is backward step, opposition warns

The bill also includes an amendment that would extend Quebec's public health emergency indefinitely. The decree, originally declared in mid-March, allows the government to make purchases for items such as medical supplies without going to tender.

Dubé said he would like that status maintained for the next two years, in order to follow through on public health infrastructure projects, for example, the renovation of regional hospitals.

"We want to have time to see these projects through to the end," he said.

Québec Solidaire's critic for labour and public security, Alexandre Leduc, said he's concerned the bill could threaten the government's independence in the awarding of public contracts.

"We have to respect the rules that we've put in place following the Charbonneau commission," Leduc said. That inquiry, led by Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau, exposed corruption in the bidding process for government construction projects.

Dubé said the legacy of the Charbonneau report would not be threatened, because the government would be addressing administrative delays but not the way public contracts are managed.

"I think this crisis could help us become more efficient when it comes to giving out contracts," he said.

Auditor general issues warning

Quebec Auditor General Guylaine Leclerc isn't convinced Quebec has the ability to do so. In her report, also released Wednesday, Leclerc underscored that Quebec is already having a hard time recruiting the engineers and technicians it needs to monitor public infrastructure projects.

Quebec Auditor General Guylaine Leclerc, who tabled her report on June 3, 2020, said the province isn't recruiting enough engineers and technicians to supervise the infrastructure projects it wants built. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

"There is challenge for the Ministry of Transport to be sure that they have the competency to be able to supervise the private firms and adequately evaluate contracts and projects," Leclerc said.

The finance minister said with the economic slowdown, many engineers working in the private sector will be in the job market — offering the government a solution to that problem.

"The position the Ministry of Transport is in right now when it comes to hiring engineers is completely different from what it was in February 2020," Girard said. 

Economic update on June 19

With  unemployment hovering around 17 per cent for the month of April, Girard said Quebec needs to get the economy moving again — and fast.

"These are projects Quebec needs," said Girard. "While there are fewer people on the roads and the workforce is available, we have to move on this."

The government wants the bill to be adopted by the end of the session, on June 12. Girard will be providing an update on Quebec's economy on June 19. After a record surplus in March 2020, he is expecting Quebec will run a deficit in its next budget.

"We want to give as precisely as possible the state of the economy and the finances," he said.

With files from Cathy Senay

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