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Infrastructure executives exhibit agility as demands shift

Don Wall
Infrastructure executives exhibit agility as demands shift
SCREENSHOT — Manitoba Heavy Construction Association chair Nicole Chabot moderated a March 24 panel discussion on the post-pandemic future of infrastructure during the CCA’s spring conference.

The pandemic has transformed the way several of Canada’s major infrastructure delivery agencies operate, with new types of projects, innovation in procurement, new construction methods and even redrawn mandates now part of the picture a year after COVID-19 first hit.

That was the message issued by top executives from Infrastructure Ontario (IO), the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) and Infrastructure BC during the second day of the Canadian Construction Association’s spring conference.

Manitoba Heavy Construction Association chair Nicole Chabot moderated a March 24 panel discussion on the post-pandemic future of infrastructure with CIB CEO Ehren Cory, IO president and CEO Michael Lindsay and Jeff Good, vice-president of Infrastructure BC, serving as panellists.

“In times of economic downturn, it’s a critical time to get infrastructure built. It’s a critical time because the conditions are right, when financing costs are low, it’s a great time for governments to invest for the long-term, and it’s also the right thing to do to stimulate economies,” Cory said in kicking off the discussion.

The executives explained that COVID prompted outright changes in course in some areas but only served to accelerate transformations that were already in the works elsewhere.

The shifts in the business model at IO over the past year have been significant. Lindsay noted the $60-billion pipeline of upcoming major projects has been more or less confirmed, with some asset classes such as new hospitals assuming greater importance, but a diverse set of new responsibilities and practices has been taken on.

 

I’m confident that we’re going to take the lessons that we’ve learned there forward,

— Michael Lindsay

Infrastructure Ontario

 

The challenge IO received from the government during the pandemic was to accelerate certain new projects that had never been included in IO’s portfolio, namely long-term-care homes, procure them in innovative ways and introduce new construction methods. That required “a certain amount of adaptability, both on our behalf and on behalf of our partners,” Lindsay said.

“We also embraced a different form of contracting to ultimately get those projects done, not doing DBF or DBFM, which is more traditional for Infrastructure Ontario, but doing something that far more resembles a tweaked CCDC contract or construction management risk type of approach. So far, so good.

“I’m confident that we’re going to take the lessons that we’ve learned there forward and begin to apply some of what we’ve learned not only to these short-fuse, almost emergency-condition-like projects, but more broadly to everything we do.”

Lindsay also discussed IO playing a more “non-traditional” role in future.

New types of projects might not be so much “bricks and mortar” but rather would serve additional connectivity objectives, he said.

“We’re even thinking about how technology infuses bricks and mortar projects in order to make them better and more optimal and in respect of policy outcomes.”

Lindsay confirmed IO will not be shrinking from traditional transit projects post-pandemic even though ridership numbers have taken a severe hit. The Toronto region was “a generation behind” on transit and the province is playing catch-up.

Cory was appointed to the CIB last Oct. 29 and was tasked with implementing the three-year, $10-billion growth plan the federal government announced earlier that month.

The growth plan represented a shift in direction for the CIB.

“Early on in our existence the CIB really was focused on those transformational, nation-building types of infrastructure projects,” Cory explained. “Those products are really important, but our assessment was we needed to do more in the shorter time horizon.”

The CIB will still work to develop long-term projects, Cory said, but in the near term, working on growth plan projects can help stimulate the economy relatively quickly as Canada recovers from the pandemic and enables the government to meet greenhouse-gas reduction targets.

“We’re much more concerned with finding shovel-worthy projects and making sure we’re doing things that we can actually do quickly and get out the door,” Cory said.

Good said finding projects has not been a issue for Infrastructure BC — the agency was operating at full capacity before the pandemic and remains so, with $23 billion in capital committed through to 2023.

But the agency’s problem is competition. There were zero respondents bidding to get one $400-million hospital project at one point and others had similar lack of interest.

In response, the agency has embarked on several initiatives, one of which was to publicize upcoming projects in a pipeline document, similar to what Ontario does, in order to increase visibility and enable firms to better plan for the future.

Additionally, Infrastructure BC has accepted that its traditional procurement methods were too unattractive, with onerous pursuit periods and expensive pursuit costs. So after consultation with constructors it is integrating new models such as Progressive Design-Build (PDB) and Competitive Alliance.

“In a PDB project, for instance, there are basically no pursuit costs, other than the RFQ-type costs,” Good said.

“I can tell you that in the last two-and-a-half years we’ve done more adjustments and created more procurement approaches than we had in the previous 17 years.”

 

Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.

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