West Side Story, the B.C. ver­sion

Times Colonist - - Islander - DERMOD TRAVIS Dermod Travis is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of In­tegri­tyBC.

If you’re just tun­ing back in to B.C. pol­i­tics, you might have missed a great po­lit­i­cal adap­ta­tion of West Side Story this sum­mer, where two ri­val gangs — the Liberis­tas and the Union­istas — com­pete for the af­fec­tion of B.C. tax­pay­ers on pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture projects.

The mu­si­cal was loosely based on this sum­mer’s an­nounce­ment by the B.C. gov­ern­ment that key pub­lic-sec­tor in­fra­struc­ture projects will be tied to pay scales, ap­pren­tice­ship train­ing, job op­por­tu­ni­ties for un­der-rep­re­sented groups and a union card for any worker “within 30 days of start­ing em­ploy­ment.”

Any com­pany — union or non-union — may bid on a project, with the un­der­stand­ing that their work­ers will be re­quired to join a rec­og­nized union within 30 days.

Per­son­ally, I sub­scribe to the Grou­cho Marx prin­ci­ple: “I don’t want to be­long to any club that will ac­cept me as a mem­ber.”

To oversee all of this, B.C. has a spank­ing new Crown cor­po­ra­tion: B.C. In­fra­struc­ture Ben­e­fits Inc.

The gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that its new com­mu­nity-ben­e­fits ap­proach will in­crease the cost of in­fra­struc­ture projects by seven per cent. Left un­said is whether the gov­ern­ment meant at the start­ing line or the fin­ish­ing line.

Bri­tish Columbians would con­sider them­selves lucky to have had the fi­nal price tag for re­cent in­fra­struc­ture projects across the prov­ince come in at seven per cent over the start­ing-line bid.

Imag­ine Vic­to­ria’s John­son Street Bridge with a fi­nal price tag of $71.8 mil­lion (seven per cent over its ini­tial bud­get of $63 mil­lion) or the Port Mann Bridge at $1.6 bil­lion, not its fi­nal price tag of $3.6 bil­lion.

There wasn’t a peep of out­rage from the In­de­pen­dent Con­trac­tors and Busi­nesses As­so­ci­a­tion when Site C be­came a $10.7-bil­lion project last De­cem­ber, a 22 per cent in­crease over the 2014 es­ti­mate and a 62 per cent in­crease over for­mer premier Gor­don Campbell’s $6.6-bil­lion es­ti­mate in 2010.

Tough to com­plain too loudly about those cost over­runs, though, when some of the com­pa­nies in­volved are spon­sor­ing your an­nual golf tour­na­ment, as some did this sum­mer with the ICBA’s tour­na­ment.

The usual hang­ers-on came out to sup­port both gangs.

Po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions were slung. A “pay­off” to the NDP’s union bud­dies, who have — in the words of the Liberis­tas — do­nated more than $2.5 mil­lion to that party since 2005.

The Liberis­tas didn’t men­tion their own do­na­tions to the B.C. Lib­eral party for their “pay­off” over the past 16 years.

The ICBA, with just nine of its al­lies, do­nated $2.9 mil­lion to the Lib­er­als in the same pe­riod.

In­stead of get­ting to the meat of the is­sue, part of the de­bate piv­oted to, well, meat. More specif­i­cally, menus at work camps un­der the agree­ment.

The Liberis­tas might be more fa­mil­iar with the term “per diem” when it comes to meals.

No men­tion of the “ho­tel-like” work camp at Site C from them, ei­ther.

The $470-mil­lion camp — built to house 2,000 work­ers — comes with a movie the­atre, li­censed lounge, run­ning track and bas­ket­ball court, phys­io­ther­apy, massage and hair­dress­ing ser­vices.

Where does this leave the be­lea­guered tax­payer?

Un­der the Lib­er­als, the or­der of the day was “best price,” at the start­ing gate at least. Un­der the NDP, it’s now “best friend.”

Over­looked in all of it: best value. By try­ing to cut cor­ners and shave costs, do we end up with in­fe­rior in­fra­struc­ture?

The new Ab­bots­ford Re­gional Hos­pi­tal — one of B.C.’s first pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships — opened in 2008. Within six years, the pipes started to fail, forc­ing lengthy ren­o­va­tions.

Steel for Vic­to­ria’s John­son Street Bridge was re­jected be­fore it had even left China.

Trans­mis­sion tow­ers — man­u­fac­tured in In­dia for B.C. Hy­dro’s In­te­rior to Lower Main­land Trans­mis­sion Line — “twisted, bent and col­lapsed” and, yet, Hy­dro hired one of the same con­trac­tors this year for work on Site C.

Such fail­ures add to the costs and de­lay projects, but by all means fo­cus on the salad at work camps in­stead.

Tax­pay­ers, how­ever, would be bet­ter served with an­swers as to why an in­de­pen­dent re­view by Per­rin, Tho­rau and As­so­ciates — com­mis­sioned by B.C.’s Min­istry of Fi­nance — on the Port Mann Bridge project found that the for­mer gov­ern­ment “lacked the nec­es­sary re­sources to directly man­age the bridge’s de­sign and con­struc­tion” and “wasn’t able to in­de­pen­dently es­ti­mate costs and sched­ules for con­struc­tion.”

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