We are in the midst of a significant and long-term infrastructure construction boom.
After decades of underinvestment in critical core public infrastructure, all three levels of government have recognized the need to sustainably invest in the rehabilitation and replacement of crumbling assets, and expansion to accommodate growth in the province.
As investments grow, however, bottlenecks in the construction industry that slow down production are becoming more pronounced. For any construction projects that require excavation (e.g. sewer and watermain, roads, foundation, new housing developments, etc.) the most significant of these bottlenecks is the utility locate system.
Ask any contractor working in these sectors in any corner of the province what the biggest cause for delay is in their construction project schedule, and invariably they will tell you it’s late locates.
In 2013, the Ontario Underground Infrastructure Notification System Act (better known as the One Call Act) centralized the utility locate system in the province under Ontario One Call. Contractors advocated for this system, to improve health and safety measures by ensuring no utilities were missed when calling for locates prior to excavation, and to streamline the administration process.
The Act was not reinventing the wheel, as many U.S. states already had One Call systems in place, most requiring utility owners to return locates two to three days following a request being placed. In Ontario, utility owners were granted a five day turnaround time in order to address these requests in what they deemed to be a more reasonable timeline.
The problem, though, is this timeline has never been enforced. And because administration of the Act has been handed over to One Call, whose Board of Directors and voting structure is dominated by utility owners, there has been no desire to move forward on enforcement.
In other words, utility owners would have to agree to penalize themselves in order to enforce the five day timeline. This has created tremendous issues across the province, as excavation contractors have grown increasingly frustrated over the last six years given the amount of business lost and delayed as a result of the late delivery of locates.
Delays are the enemy of the construction industry. Delays increase project risk and costs, they push back completion times, and they are terrible for public relations. In the excavation construction sector, delays are particularly problematic because the project areas that we work in are most often in the middle of the street. So, a delay in our project work means extra expense shouldered by local taxpayers, more time with City streets torn up, and longer traffic disruptions.
By way of example, the equipment and labour costs alone for a typical linear infrastructure construction crew in the GTA will run between $10,000 and $20,000 per day.
If a project is delayed due to the late delivery of a locate, crews are forced to sit idle and contractors are forced to add this stand-by time to the overall project cost, which is ultimately paid for out of the public purse. With a mechanism to enforce the legislated delivery timelines for locates, there will be less project delays, resulting in less risk and, ultimately, less cost.
Ontario One Call has taken a very one-sided approach to dealing with this issue to date, given the composition of its Board. Rather than acting as a true public regulator, Ontario One Call is now proposing to push additional risk and responsibility onto excavators and extend the current five day legislated delivery timeline with still no method of enforcement.
There is no excuse for why we take weeks in Ontario to deliver utility locates when most US states can deliver them in two to three business days. The five-day legislated timeline needs to be enforced. Contractors are amendable to some changes, if there is greater certainty around the delivery timelines.
Patrick McManus is the government relations director at the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association and the Greater Toronto Sewer and Watermain Contractors’ Association. Send comments or Industry Perspectives Op-ed column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.