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Alberta tackles school projects with eye to provincial P3 future

Warren Frey
Alberta tackles school projects with eye to provincial P3 future

Alberta’s new government is launching a P3 bundle of schools as its first step to a more ambitious infrastructure plan.

Alberta minister of infrastructure Prasad Panda and assistant deputy minister Andy Ridge explained at a market sounding session, at the recent annual conference of the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships in Toronto, how its provincial government will tackle new public-private partnership (P3) projects starting with a series of schools in and around Edmonton and Calgary.

Panda said part of the information gathering process to go forward with news schools included studying what hadn’t worked with school projects under the previous NDP government.

“I wanted to meet the parent and teacher groups to get specific examples and we’ll do that in the next few months, get their input and address them in the new contracts. That’s the beauty of P3, we can have an extended warranty for 30 years to address those problems. We can also build in innovation in the early design phase, obtain cost and schedule certainty, and build these projects much faster and cheaper using those experiences,” he said.

The previous government had spent money on the design of the Edmonton and Calgary schools, and Panda said the current government would consult with their P3 proponents to see if there was an appetite to use those designs and consolidate them into a P3 package.

“It’s an option, but we don’t want to lose time, because those schools have a hard deadline,” Panda said.

Ridge added when P3 projects come under criticism, it’s often more because of a lack of initial planning and not weakness in the P3 model.

“Some of the issues we encountered with P3 schools related to planning and design challenges were where students required the addition of modular classrooms, there wasn’t the appropriate planning for landscaping or drainage, and as a result mud was being tracked into the schools,” Ridge said.

“It was less of a P3 issue and more of a planning challenge, but in a P3 model when adding more people than originally planned you need to work through a contract. In a traditional school you just have more kids going through and increase your cost,” he added. “The benefit of a P3 contract is it keeps the contract relationship honest but when the world changes you need to work through a more rigorous process and I think that’s what people react to, that ability to move quickly and course correct but you have to properly plan.”

The province of Alberta is also launching a 20-year capital plan next year to address infrastructure needs and deficiencies over the long term for anything falling under the definition of public infrastructure including broadband, irrigation, and roads and bridges, Panda said.

“We want to identify (these projects) and include them in 20-year evidence-based long-term planning so future governments can actually use that for budgeting within those 20 years,” he said.

A new office dedicated to P3 projects has also been established to help ministries coordinate their approaches, Ridge said.

“Individuals (in the office) are accountable for all government P3 activities, but their role is to manage the overall framework and the process to bring P3s through the capital planning process, facilitate procurement for financial support or financial analysis, and preparation of business case opportunity papers,” he said.

The office is within the ministry of infrastructure but works with other ministries to identify P3 opportunities, Ridge added, and is supplemented by financial analysis consultants and advisors from other jurisdictions.

“It’s one thing for Alberta to be rolling through a capital plan and a P3 pipeline but we want to make sure about what other jurisdictions in Canada are doing to make sure we aren’t competing, essentially, for the same resources or capital. That office will manage those relationships as well,” he said.

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