Action promised on highway construction contracts

The Saskatchewan government is promising to look harder at how highway construction contracts are monitored, following a CBC News iTeam investigation.

Ministry says some contractors purposely delay government jobs

A CBC iTeam investigation found that 46 per cent of highway contracts in 2012-13 were not finished on time. (CBC)
Provincial cabinet minister Jim Reiter says probes are underway to learn more about late performance of highway construction projects. (CBC)

The Saskatchewan government is promising to look harder at how highway construction contracts are monitored, following a CBC News iTeam investigation.

"If there's cases of contractors that are just loading up contracts and not getting them done then obviously we need to take action," Jim Reiter, the Minister of Government Relations, said Thursday. Reiter answered questions about highways because that minister was away.

A ministry review of Saskatchewan's handling of highway construction is also underway, launched by officials in response to questions about the frequency of late performance on road building projects.

CBC's iTeam found 46 per cent of contracts, in 2012-2013, were not finished on time.

One of the reasons behind the delays relates to how some contractors choose to delay government work, and even pay late penalties, when other work opportunities arise.

Ted Stobbe, an assistant deputy minister, told CBC News in November of 2013, that contractors were simply making business decisions.

"They know what the penalties are, they know what the consequences are going to be, but they elect for business reasons to do something that extends our contract," he said. "There's no law that says that they can't take other work and they have to run their businesses in a fashion where they're going to make money, right? That's why they're in business."

Stobbe spoke to CBC News just prior to his retirement from public service.

Unanswered questions

On Thursday, Reiter noted the ministry's review was necessary in order to respond to many questions about highway construction contracts.

During the course of its iTeam investigation, CBC News asked the ministry several questions which were left unanswered, including:

  • What were the lengths of delays (days, weeks, or months?)
  • What was the amount of all penalties paid by contractors in 2012-13?
  • How many contractors delayed government work for other contracts?
  • What were all the other reasons cited for delay?

Reiter claimed Thursday that weather conditions in 2012-13, notably flooding, played a role in how road builders met the performance standards, including time-lines, in their contracts.

He also said overall spending on highways has increased substantially in recent years and delays may be related to contractor capacity.

"We've had record capital budgets," Reiter said. "So this is kind of uncharted territory for the ministry and for a lot of the contractors. We're doing a lot more construction work than has been done in the past so there's a bit of a learning curve there as well."

Opposition raises concerns

The Opposition NDP said Thursday that they are concerned about the impact that late performance on highway work has in many areas.

NDP Opposition critic Buckley Belanger says many concerns arise when highway work is delayed. (CBC)

"That problem is causing safety concerns for our families. That problem is creating problems for our economy overall. It may even further aggravate the agricultural crisis," NDP critic Buckley Belanger said. "We need a decent highway system to be completed on time and on budget."

Buckley, who held the highways portfolio when he was a minister in a previous NDP government, was very critical of the current government's handling of contracts

"What we've learned is this government's system for highway contracts is in complete shambles," Belanger said. When asked about his experience with late contracts, Belanger said he thought it was unlikely that it happened.

"I don't have that information, but I'm probably assuming its zero," he said.

Information provided from the ministry shows that in 2006-07, the last full year of an NDP government, 37 per cent of highway construction contracts were noted as late.

With files from CBC's Geoff Leo, Stefani Langenegger and David Fraser


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