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Auditor General's report slams ministry of transportation, road paving industry

If anyone ought to be able to build roads that last in a cold climate, it’s Canadians. It’s puzzling, therefore, to find that road builders in Ontario are, if the Auditor General is right, so prone to getting things wrong. Unfortunately, they seem to have a powerful ally: the Ministry of Transportation.

Bonnie Lysyk’s report for 2016 was tabled in the legislature at Queen’s Park on November 30 and has had the usual effect of making the government look bad. It contains an entire section on the Ministry of Transportation and its road infrastructure and maintenance work. The ministry does not come off looking good at all, nor do its suppliers, the companies that build and repair the roads.

One of the highlights of this section of the report is the claim that contractors continue to get work for the government even after they have done unsatisfactory or even dangerous work. Further, the report says that the ministry paid millions of dollars for repairs to roads that were only one to three years old; the roads are supposed to last for fifteen years.

What is really shocking in this is that, according to Lysyk, the ministry has been aware of the problem of premature road cracking since at least 2000. By 2004 the ministry had confirmed that the reason for the premature cracking was the poor quality of the asphalt being used. So, three years later, in 2007, the ministry came up with two tests for assessing the quality of asphalt. The two tests had to be performed in combination to accurately predict whether asphalt would crack prematurely. But by the year 2012, five years after developing the tests, only one of them had been implemented. The reason for not implementing both tests? “Multiple requests from the asphalt industry not to implement them,” says Lysyk.

And the ministry’s explanation for this shocking development? Ministry staff told the auditor general’s people that the ministry works “collaboratively” with its suppliers. A joint pavement committee made up of the Ontario Hot Mix Producers Association (OHMPA) and ministry officials determined whether to implement the tests. This in essence allowed ministry suppliers to determine the quality of the materials they were using “even though premature cracking would result in additional revenue for the industry” and cost taxpayers money.

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Familiar sight. This road shows severe premature cracking after six years of use. It was supposed to last fifteen years. Source: Ontario Auditor General’s report 2016.

During our audit, we identified that highways across all regions of the province had pavement issues where cracks had to be fixed much earlier than the expected life of 15 years. Unfortunately, the Ministry did not maintain sufficient documentation for us to be able to calculate the full extent of the pavement problem province-wide and the total cost for repairing premature cracking.

There are serious charges that contractors have even tampered with asphalt samples in order to qualify for bonuses that the ministry pays when contractors meet the requirements of a contract even though they are always expected to do so. Lysyk’s report says outright that the ministry was aware of sample switching but has done nothing about it. In fact, Lysyk says that the ministry changed its own policies in order to benefit the Ontario Road Builders Association (ORBA). It did this by sharing with ORBA an internal audit report of the ministry’s construction contracts program. This led to ORBA’s creating its own action plan and recommendations, which the ministry, by means of an industry-heavy joint policy committee, chose to follow. This action plan, writes Lysyk, “not unexpectedly was in the best interests of its members.”

As a result of this, Lysyk’s report lists a number of policy changes that favour ORBA, including:

  • Allowing contractors to delay paying fines, or not paying at all
  • Allowing “litigious” contractors to repeatedly sue the ministry and still bid on new contracts
  • Allowing engineers responsible for quality control to be hired directly by contractors; in some cases those engineers have provided false certifications
  • Being lenient in managing poorly performing contractors
  • Awarding new contracts to contractors that have previously breached safety regulations
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How asphalt is produced. In some cases, asphalt cement suppliers add recycled engine oil to unmodified asphalt cement—a petroleum product—creating a modified asphalt cement they supply to asphalt producers. Source: Ontario Auditor General’s report 2016

In one series of field trials that the ministry conducted on certain roads, it was found that the asphalt cement suppliers had used “excessive amounts” of cheap recycled engine oil in their cement rather than the approved, and more costly, asphalt cement product. Using excessive engine oil as a substitute “greatly reduces the life of a highway” because it becomes hard and brittle in winter. In one case the repair bill for premature cracking was roughly half the cost of the original paving. The ministry spent over $12 million on a section of Highway 403, when the original paving had cost about $23 million.

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Increased costs resulting from having to repair premature cracking. Source: Ontario Auditor General’s report 2016.

Why has the industry not acted sooner?

Equally troubling is the fact that the issue of poor quality asphalt being used in road paving, identified by the ministry a decade and a half ago, seems to have reached the people responsible only recently. OHMPA issued a “special bulletin” in March 2015 from its newly formed Quality of Asphalt Pavement Task Force. The bulletin says that “in recent months” the organization has become aware of “some hot mix asphalt performance problems” that are in need of “immediate attention.” The bulletin goes on to say that the committee has determined that the problems facing Ontario’s roads are “diverse and varying” with an equally diverse list of possible causes. One of three “high priority” issues is that hot mix asphalt pavements “perform to meet the expectations of road owners.”

In another bulletin released in November, the task force says that “Superpave Technology” has been introduced in Ontario and has significantly improved the performance of pavements. However, the bulletin goes on, the key to good asphalt performance is the “effective asphalt cement and the thickness of the film of asphalt that surrounds the aggregate particles.” And these two qualities—effective asphalt cement content and film thickness—are “difficult to measure and thus specify.”

The ministry is aware of all of this, the bulletin says, and has required contactors to specify asphalt cement content for each mix type at the bidding stage. However, it leaves open the question of whether there will be any improvement in actual roads that are paved with it. “It is unclear at this time how effective these initiatives will be in increasing asphalt cement content.”

One of the task force’s recommendations is that “some form of performance based mix design methodology” be developed to improve the durability of Ontario’s roads. Another is that “a form of performance based mix evaluation” be adopted by the industry. The first step, the bulletin says, as if this has never occurred to anyone before, “is to gain experience with performance testing.” It will take “some time” to assess the linkage between testing and field performance, “but we need to take the first step.”

The Quality of Asphalt Performance Task Force has now concluded its work.

Needless to say, the Ontario Road Builders Association is not happy with the auditor general’s report and issued a short statement to that effect.

ORBA is disappointed by what we consider a clear mischaracterization of the relationship between ORBA, the Ministry of Transportation, and discussions on the issues concerning our industry. We have been and remain committed to participating in what we consider to be transparent, good faith discussions with public sector agencies to the benefit of all Ontarians.

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