Ontario’s Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca is pledging to improve winter highway maintenance across the province after an Auditor General report found service levels performed by contractors has declined and available equipment for removing snow and ice from roads is insufficient.
In a 43-page Special Report – entitled Winter Highway Maintenance and requested by the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts – Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said that, although the Ministry of Transportation has been successful in reducing escalating winter maintenance costs, it now takes longer to clear highways during and after a storm, making them less safe for motorists.
The report found the length of time the most travelled highways in the province were cleared after the end of a storm increased from an average of 2.1 hours to 4.7 hours in the winter 2013/14; and six of 20 contract areas did not meet the province’s standard of clearing highways within eight hours 90% of the time.
“Today’s report has confirmed what we already knew: despite the improvements we have made – the additional equipment, additional oversight and organizational changes – the current system of winter highway maintenance needs to be better,” said Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca.
Del Duca noted the ministry has added over 100 pieces of equipment, “strengthened oversight,” as well as “enhanced how it plows truck climbing and passing lanes and freeway ramps and shoulders.” He added that last week’s budget included funding for more equipment changes – dedicated spreaders for both urban congested areas and select locations in northern Ontario and funding to improve driving conditions with the increased use of de-icing liquids.
“As a ministry, we have a lot of work to do. But, so do our contractors. I will be meeting with them in person as soon as possible to determine how we can work together to improve this program and their performance,” said Del Duca, who added the ministry will have an action plan within 60 days that outlines how to further strengthen and improve winter maintenance, with implementation on the AG’s recommendations expected before next winter.
Among the Report’s other findings:
- Even though ministry personnel raised concerns that the majority of winning contractors would not be able to meet their winter maintenance commitments because of insufficient equipment, some lowest-price contractors were still awarded the contracts. In one case, the lowest bidder ended up costing more because the province had to step in and pay for more equipment to clear roads properly.
- Contractors under performance-based contracts used less highway treatment materials such as anti-icing liquid, sand and salt to service highways.
- Daily patrolling to determine road conditions was no longer required by contractors. Instead contractors were to “be aware” of road and weather conditions, and patrolled less often, resulting in equipment not being deployed soon enough before and during storms. This also increased the risk that highway condition information on the Ministry’s Ontario 511 website was not updated on a timely basis.
- Although contractors faced fines for failing to meet their targets, MTO waived $4.8 million of the $13.3 million in fines assessed during the winter of 2013/14.
Upon reviewing the report, the Ontario Trucking Association welcomed the MTO’s commitment to improve service levels and address the concerns highlighted by the Auditor General:
OTA has been working with MTO and its membership for two winter seasons to help build the case that some contractors do not appear to be fully living up to their contractual obligations. OTA welcomes the Ministers Action plan and looks forward to providing the trucking industry’s input.