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ORBA concerned with MTO’s unilateral contract specs

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by Don Wall

The Ontario Road Builders’ Association (ORBA) is upset that the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has introduced new roadbuilding specifications into 2017 contracts without consulting the industry.
ORBA concerned with MTO’s unilateral contract specs

ORBA executive director Geoff Wilkinson said the unilateral implementation of the new asphalt specifications sets a dangerous precedent and may lead to substandard roadbuilding under 2017 contracts.

The imposition of the new specs comes in the wake of last November's report by Auditor General (AG) Bonnie Lysyk that identified rampant problems with asphalt quality and the execution of roadbuilding contracts.

"It was surprising, and it was disheartening, when we have been working with the MTO to develop quality specifications and input from a technical perspective and oftentimes the MTO won't have the skill sets to evaluate those specifications from the perspective we do, so that is why they come to us and consult," said Wilkinson.

"They accepted the auditor general's report and in doing so responded to her concerns by arbitrarily putting in place these specifications."

The AG's report was flawed in many respects, said Wilkinson. A Nov. 7, 2016 meeting with the AG was merely lip service because the report was already written by that point, he said.

"There may be some unintended consequences with specification changes that have not been tried and tested or properly vetted."

Vince Aurilio
Ontario Asphalt Paving Council

ORBA is in the process of working with a third party to analyze and report on the criticisms contained in the Nov. 30 report.

Wilkinson was successful in drawing the attention of the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) to the matter at the CCA's board meeting held May 27 and 28 in St. John's, N.L. The CCA board highlights package indicated, in part, "(the Civil Infrastructure) Council feels that it is critical for the industry to be included in any discussions regarding changes to specifications or procedures."

Bill Ferreira, vice-president of government relations and public affairs for the CCA, explained, "We don't like to see overreactions on the part of governments, essentially adopting kneejerk positions without proper consultation with industry."

An MTO spokesperson indicated that the ministry prepared an action plan in response to the AG report that identified immediate steps to take to improve the quality and durability of the asphalt used on roadways.

"We have taken the auditor's recommendations very seriously, and that is why we wanted to ensure the new asphalt specifications were in place for the start of the 2017 construction season," a written statement said. "We have worked with ORBA to educate their members about the changes and have also committed to review the specification changes with industry stakeholders after this construction season."

Wilkinson said beyond the lack of prior consultation, ORBA has concerns that the new specifications may have an impact on the quality of roadbuilding.

"With some of them we know we have some issues and challenges right away, and others are unproven and may lead to problems down the road," he said.

"We will be working with technical consultants to work with our members to evaluate what some of these specifications mean for the future and what some of our recommendations will be with regards to the application of the specifications."

Ontario Asphalt Paving Council (OAPC) executive director Vince Aurilio said his council is concerned that highways are currently being built using untested new specifications. The OAPC recently changed its name from the Ontario Hot Mix Producers Association and merged with ORBA.

"We have concerns that the changes may impact operational compliance measures and risk levels for many of our members," Aurilio commented via email. "ORBA members were strongly advised to independently evaluate the implications of these changes for their particular operations. In addition, there may be some unintended consequences with specification changes that have not been tried and tested or properly vetted."

The AG's report found "a significant problem with pavement cracking years before it is supposed to," resulting in increased cost to taxpayers. Lysyk found the MTO permitted the asphalt industry to use poor-quality cement and that asphalt tests were faulty, with the ministry giving contractors the opportunity to switch testing samples. Addressing operations and contract administration, Lysyk said ORBA manipulated the consultation process to "significantly influence ministry processes" and its members earned bonuses in circumstances that were suspect.

Wilkinson said some ORBA members wanted to immediately "push back" after the report came out but "on reflection we figured that is not always the best approach."

He identified several problems with Lysyk's methodology and conclusions. Sample sizes used to evaluate asphalt quality were "minute," Wilkinson said. Language was imprecise, such as the AG saying problems "may" have occurred, without offering proof, he said.

Criticizing an outside body such as ORBA so extensively in the first place, in what is intended to be an evaluation of government practices, is unusual, he said.

By not consulting with ORBA as she undertook her research, Lysyk did not have adequate industry context for her analysis, he said.

"Because she did not consult with industry, she is not getting a full understanding of where there may have been problems with the roads," said Wilkinson.

As a result of her lack of understanding of the ongoing consultation process between the MTO and ORBA, he cited as an example, Lysyk concluded ORBA was delaying and engaging in political standoffs with MTO when it was more a matter of ORBA relying on its technical expertise and working to improve specifications.

"A word like sensationalism might come to mind," said Wilkinson.

Still, ORBA is taking a number of steps to improve its practices, said the executive director, including meeting with its members on quality issues and consulting with such organizations as the Ontario Municipal Engineers Association and the Ontario Good Roads Association besides working with the technical consultants to evaluate the new specs.

And in due time there will be the outside consultants' report that will counter some of the "errors" ORBA has found in Lysyk's report, said Wilkinson.

"We appreciate the relationship we have had with the Ministry of Transportation and hope things get back on track," he said.

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