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Companies plowing Ontario highways owe $2.5M in fines

Companies clearing Ontario highways owe more than $2.5 million in fines for poor performance last winter, but there is little the government can do to collect, except wait.

Fines can be appealed, province locked into winter maintenance contracts for up to 10 more years

An investigation into Ontario's winter highway maintenance program by the auditor general found that the quality of snow clearing in the province dropped significantly since 2009, when the government changed its criteria for selecting contractors. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

Companies clearing Ontario highways owe more than $2.5 million in fines for poor performance last winter, but there is little the government can do to collect, except wait.

The province levied $3.25 million in fines against its highway maintenance contractors during the winter of 2015-16, but has so far only collected $693,000, according to new figures provided to CBC News by the Ministry of Transportation.

Ontario's long-term contracts for winter maintenance give snow-clearing companies the right to appeal the fines, and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca said the dispute-resolution process takes time.

"We had asked them to consider short-circuiting what's in their contract and going directly to binding arbitration, something they're not required to do," Del Duca said in an interview. "They considered it, they rejected that." 

The ministry says five contractors owing $2.56 million in fines from last winter are involved in the appeal process, which can be followed by mediation, then arbitration or litigation. 

Auditor's followup

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk's investigation last year into the winter highway maintenance program found that snow wasn't being cleared as quickly or as thoroughly as it had in the past. 

In 2009, the ministry made changes to how it contracts out winter maintenance, favouring the lowest bidders with little regard for whether they could do the work.

The auditor general found that the quality of highway maintenance fell after that. "This was especially evident in the harsher winter of 2013/14, which led to us being asked to do this audit," the auditor said.

Del Duca promised immediate changes.

Lysyk recently released a followup to its investigation, saying the government has implemented eight of her 19 recommendations and is in the process of acting on another eight.

Among the improvements that Lysyk noted, the ministry has added 19 inspectors to monitor the quality of snow-clearing during storms and has tightened the process for dealing with contractors who fail to perform work up to standard. 

"I feel good about the fact that the auditor found we have made significant progress since last year," Del Duca said. "I feel a particular responsibility to make sure that we do get it right." 

'We'll continue to push as hard as we can to make sure we have a winter maintenance system that's functioning properly,' says Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca. (CBC)

But there has been little progress on Lysyk's recommendation to improve its selection of contractors by evaluating bidders' ability to clear the highways adequately. The government agreed, but since the audit in April 2015 it has only awarded one new contract under the stricter guidelines.

With three other contracts that came up for renewal, Lysyk said "bids came in higher than expected and, therefore, the procurement tenders were cancelled and the contracts were never awarded."

Still, Del Duca wants to reassure drivers that the highways will be properly cleared this winter.

"I think we're in a much stronger position certainly than we were a year or two ago and we'll continue to push as hard as we can to make sure we have a winter maintenance system that's functioning properly." 

He points to faster updates to the province's highway conditions website and additional coverage on the new TrackMyPlow website. 

The ministry sets targets for highways to be cleared within a certain number of hours after a storm, depending on the class of highway. The government says contractors met the targets provincially 97 per cent of the time last winter, up from 92 per cent in the more severe winters of 2013-14 and 2014-15.

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