Liberals pull politics out of paving with five-year roads plan
Government expects savings from change in approach to tendering, contracting
Transportation and Works Minister Al Hawkins promised a five- year provincial roads plan would be out by the end of January. True to his word, he is set to release the plan today.
“This is a fundamental change in the way in which government is doing roadwork,” Hawkins said, taking questions on the plan from The Telegram Monday afternoon.
The outlook on infrastructure was talked about on the campaign trail and throughout the first year of the new Liberal government. Public consultations in that time, plus all of the subsequent number crunching and a deep dive into how projects are put to contractors was all about a simple idea: time is money.
The five-year roads plan is expected to help the province get a first round of tenders for annual roadwork out sooner. The earlier tenders each year will allow heavy civil companies to get contracts in hand, allowing more time to plan and prepare for the construction season, plus sort out issues arising, and avoiding — at least through government action — work carrying over into the following year.
The “carry-overs” have been a problem for the province in the past.
In 2014, The Telegram reported on the subject of carryovers and fed up contractors. At the time, Progressive Conservative minister Nick McGrath touted the fact the government was improving on the status quo. First tenders for that year, he said, were out on March 1. In 2017, first tenders are going out before Feb. 1, along with the five-year plan for roadwork and bridgework.
In terms of the outlook, not all projects for the next five years are listed. The work for this coming fiscal year is there, 100 per cent. A rough 75 per cent of work expected for 201819 is listed, dropping down to 50 per cent for 201920 and 25 per cent for the subsequent two years.
The lower percentages of named projects the further out you go is to allow for needed flexibility, the minister said. For example, there may be projects arising to be slotted higher on the list of priorities. Projects might also find themselves shooting up the list if, for instance, they match with any special federal programming arising (not that there was anything specific to be said on that, but only the idea the province needs to retain the ability to capitalize).
As for what is listed, there is no simple path to selecting maintenance and improvements on about 9,763 kilometres of provincial roads and 1,317 bridges and large culverts.
Hawkins said the list of potential projects is growing each year. But that’s also part of having as comprehensive an outlook as possible, he said.
Apart from early tendering, he said, the Liberals believe planning ahead will allow the government to identify more places where projects can be packaged together and companies can point to where they might flow more efficiently from one needed project into the next.
And more lead time means more time to pursue federal funding, to assure requirements for cost-sharing projects are met and, increasingly, lockin start dates.
The Liberals have talked about the five-year plan as a way to “take the politics out of paving,” getting away from issuing so much per district or something to find favour in an electoral district. Hawkins did not cite any specific examples.
“I think for us, it’s important when we’re facing the fiscal situation the province is in, to do a better job of planning,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of identifying and using evidence, the evidence-based criteria for us to make wise decisions. We are spending taxpayers’ dollars and I think the time has come for us to be able to say categorically that what roads we have in this five-year plan are roads that have gone through a process whereby we have used a qualitative, a quantitative (review) and an expert panel of engineers to determine where the priorities are at.”
In addition to the five-year plan, the government is making public a “Guide to ranking road and bridge projects,” setting out precisely how road and bridge projects are being valued, rated and ranked.
The first step in the process involves scoring: road safety, road condition, class (a local road, a main access road to the community, etc.) and potential economic impact. There is an engineering-based evaluation of pavement condition, rutting, usage and consideration of safety evaluations. The latter, for bridges, would incorporate bridge inspection reports and weight any proposed bridge repairs based on existing conditions.
And did Hawkins have a hand in picking the next projects?
“For next year’s project, I don’t think there’s any changes,” he said of the list presented by staff, when asked about the politics that might remain.
The five-year roads plan will be updated every year.
For 2017- 18, the province has planned $77.2-million in roadwork. This includes work on overpasses, culverts and bridges. A complete project list is available online at gov.nl.ca.