Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) is moving into the second year of its action plan for reform of the province’s roadway procurement practices and is ready to make big changes, in contract oversight at least.
That was the message from two MTO managers who spoke to delegates attending a recent Ontario Road Builders’ Association (ORBA) Toronto conference workshop on changes to road-project contract administration.
Garfield Dales, an MTO manager of project delivery, and Gary Weiss, an MTO manager of operations for the northwestern region, told delegates the ministry’s Action Plan for Highway Construction Contracts and Oversight had been drawn up in a matter of months after Ontario Auditor General (AG) Bonnie Lysyk had been sharply critical of road procurement practices in her 2016 audit.
The reforms will take some getting used to said Dales in an interview after the Feb. 6 workshop.
“Certainly change is challenging and we understand some of these initiatives, particularly some of those we rolled out last year, they were rolled out quite quickly and the industry has done a great job in terms of responding,” he said.
Weiss presented results of an MTO audit undertaken last year that he said confirmed the need for one key reform identified by Lysyk. The AG had criticized the practice of having Quality Verification Engineers (QVEs) hired by the contractors themselves sign off on infrastructure work done relating to structural, foundational and electrical specifications.
The audit found rampant omissions and errors in work done by some QVEs. Paperwork was not done and there was a “significant” number of discrepencies between working drawings submitted and the work actually performed, Weiss said.
Training and knowledge in our field, there is a huge gap
— Gary Weiss
Ministry of Transportation
“One of things was surprising to me,” he said. “When you look at this from a black and white perspective, when you look at what the QVE is required to provide to the ministry, and all the duties laid out, we had a 50-per-cent failure rate. That’s pretty significant.”
There were no safety concerns, nothing that would cause a structure to collapse, he said, “but when you have that type of failure rate, it causes questions.”
“We do want to have a good product out there and we want it done right, so there definitely needs to be a change.”
For the 2017 construction season the MTO implemented a pilot project involving 15 contracts where QVEs were replaced by MTO staff or hired contract administrators (CAs).
The days of the QVE are numbered, said Dales.
“We are moving away from the QVE process,” he said.
“It will be later this spring that we will be slowly starting to implement it, so it won’t be in all projects this year. We’ll try it on a number of contracts, we’ll solicit feedback from the industry and we’ll make the adjustment as we move to full implementation.”
Weiss told the delegates, “It’s a big change for all of us, the contract administration staff…definitely there will be some learning curves and growing pains but we are all going to have to work through it together.
“That’s the main message, communication and collaboration in the field and hopefully things go well this year.”
The MTO action plan is wide-ranging with measures calling for technical improvements to asphalt, suspending the use of recycled asphalt and the launch of a fraud tip line to curb corruption.
ORBA released its own report on asphalt quality at the conference. Dales was asked about the extent to which the two reform processes were developing co-operatively.
“There is a high degree of collaboration between the two initiatives,” he said.
“We see ORBA as an active partner in some of the work we’ve already done related to the action plan. They have presented some of their work yesterday (Feb. 5) with the KPMG study so we look forward to working with them on that work as well.”
Weiss noted the MTO was consulting not only with ORBA but also Professional Engineers Ontario, the Consulting Engineers of Ontario and other stakeholders in developing and reviewing the action plan.
Weiss admitted in response to a delegate question the MTO would be initially taxed finding trained inspectors to take on the CA role.
“One thing I will say, training and knowledge in our field, there is a huge gap,” he said, referring to the coming retirement of a generation of experienced MTO staffers.
“Training is the next phase we will move into.”