The Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association (ARHCA) has launched a campaign to press the province to rethink its strategy on funding, managing and operating its network of roads.
The group contends the present approach stymies innovation and prevents rational planning. It maintains the government – no matter which party is in power – needs a strategic plan, predictable budget and long-term vision to preserve highways and bridges across the province.
“We would like the government to try techniques that would provide greater certainty for the industry and, in return, better value for the taxpayer,” said ARHCA chief executive officer Ron Glen.
“We’ve had a very fluctuating spending path, like boom and bust. The end result is the taxpayer is paying more. It’s hard on business because all of a sudden funds dry up and everything stops.”
Contractors in the road and bridge building sectors are suffering just now because of the up and down swings in funding, said Glen, and because the province is in dire straits it will get worse.
“In our sector, even though the government will say it’s been investing a lot in roads, it’s really hurting right now. We’re seeing some members going into bankruptcy and a lot of equipment gets sold off here, which is going to the States, it’s going to B.C., it’s going to Saskatchewan and Ontario.”
Glen said the ARHCA executive felt something must be done to stabilize funding and management of road work.
There is going to have to be some very difficult financial decisions made and we wanted to make sure we were at the table and not on the menu,
— Ron Glen
Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association
“Over the last couple of years, our board of directors realized that we needed to become more proactive in our advocacy for the industry, so this is the result, which is committing to a public program of advocacy.”
The ARHCA is presently gathering facts on the issue. An advisory panel of high-profile Albertans, business and construction leaders and former high-ranking civil servants was formed to shape recommendations for government to consider and will be presenting them to the province.
“No matter what government is elected in the next month or so there is going to have to be some very difficult financial decisions made and we wanted to make sure we were at the table and not on the menu,” said Glen.
“We’re anticipating spending in the economic situation is going to be tougher so we thought, ‘let’s do it in a way that we don’t cut our nose to spite our face,’ and let’s have some longer-term certainty. Let’s have a plan so that companies can make their decisions.
“Every year, it’s a panic situation because of the annual budget cycle and when you’ve got a multi-billion-dollar asset it’s not the way to manage. It’s time that we looked past the annual budget to have a more predictable plan for preserving the highways and something that’s more predictable in terms of budgets so that companies can decide.”
Glen said the ARHCA wants to make sure it brings factual information to the table on the situation and alert people to the fact that the cost for short-term cuts has long-term financial liability.
“What we want to do is be able to explain to Albertans how valuable the highway transportation asset base is and what is important to keep it in good shape and how much it contributes to the economy.”
Glen said recommendations will be coming forward soon.
“Stay tuned for some provocative solutions. Every so often Alberta has an opportunity to become a national leader. We were the first to outsource highway maintenance and engineering services and we were at the leading edge. We’re going to need to do something that moves the dial again,” he said.
There are all sorts of public advocacy groups that speak for every sector of the economy in Alberta, he added, but no one is stepping up for roads.
Glen said Alberta roadbuilders have had a lot of interaction with provincial governments over the years on everything from regulatory issues to labour legislation, so it makes sense to be involved.
“The premise has always been that Alberta roadbuilders have always been solution-oriented and trusted partners of government, so our perspective here is we’re going to point out what we think needs to be done,” he said. “But, we’re also going to be part of the solution and we’re going to provide recommendations to help because we are businesses and we are taxpayers too.”
A paper prepared by the ARHCA states the decline in infrastructure in Alberta’s transportation infrastructure over the past 16 years has not yet reached a crisis stage.
However, the safety and reliability of the roads is a serious concern and Alberta requires a co-ordinated effort to alter the trajectory.
Glen said in a “pipeline-constrained world” Alberta has to find a way to bring its hydrocarbons to market.
“There’s only so much that we’ll be able to move by rail,” he said. “New products will also be made that will have to be moved by truck.”
He noted roads are important to any economy.
“It’s the first thing the Romans did – build roads.”