Highway contractor has ‘picked up game’: MTO
Winter road maintenance contractors in Northwestern Ontario have had to pay severe penalties this year for failing to meet provincial standards.
“These are performance-based contracts and when they fail to meet our standards, they face penalties,” Ian Smith, the Ministry of Transportation’s regional director for the northwest, told delegates attending the Rainy River District Municipal Association’s annual meeting Saturday in Atikokan.
“We’re not talking thousands of dollars; we are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Winter road maintenance contracts specify financial penalties for failing to meet MTO standards, and these penalties grow until the contractor comes into compliance.
They also contain language that allows the MTO to ramp up consequences. Contractors can be cited for infractions, which can reduce their ability to bid on future contracts, and in the most severe cases, the MTO can terminate a contract.
In the Kenora area (west of the Seine River bridge on Highway 11 and west of Dinorwic on Highway 17), Transfield Services has run into all kinds of problems meeting road condition standards this winter.
Smith said the MTO has placed the contractor on a 100 percent audit basis, which means all of the company’s work is being inspected in the field.
In the normal course of operations, field inspection audits are conducted only on a selective basis.
“Transfield has been paying severe penalties,” noted Smith.
“I think you’ll notice they have picked up their game.”
Smith conceded this has been a much nastier winter than the past four or five, and that relatively new contractors to an area often experience a period of adjustment.
Transfield won the contract for the area in June, 2012.
One area where Transfield may be getting unfair criticism is for Highway 502, which links Fort Frances and Dryden (this was of special concern to the municipal delegates, especially since school bus operators are refusing to use it).
However, because 502 is a Class 5 highway, the maintenance standards are markedly lower.
A Class 1 highway has to be centre bare within eight hours of the end of a winter event 90 percent of the time. By contrast, a Class 5 highway, like 502, has to be snow-packed within 24 hours of the end of a winter event.
Smith said he suspected the former contractor for the area was doing more than required for Highway 502, and that may explain the poorer conditions drivers have noticed since Transfield took over last winter.
“Highway 502 will never be maintained to Highway 11/17 standards,” stressed Smith.
“That said, the contractor was dinged with penalties [for failing to meet standards].”
The MTO is considering raising the designation for 502 to Class 4 (centre bare within 24 hours following the end of a winter event, and full bare pavement when conditions permit) even though it doesn’t meet usage standards.
Winter traffic on the route is fewer than 400 vehicles per day; usually, a route needs 400-800 vehicles per day to qualify as Class 4.
It will be a budget decision, said Smith, who estimated a Class 4 designation would saddle the MTO with an extra $500,000 in maintenance costs.
It will be a tough case to make given the low traffic volume—and lack of major incidents—on the route.
Meanwhile, Smith noted that Integrated Maintenance & Operations Services (IMOS), which has held the contract for the Thunder Bay West area since June, 2011, has paid significant financial penalties for failing to meet standards on the stretch of Highway 11 between Atikokan and the salt shed at Huronian.
“It’s become plain to us that they just didn’t have enough equipment in that area [to meet MTO standards],” he said.
“So we asked them if they wanted to keep paying heavy penalties or put some more equipment there.
“They indicated to us they going to put another piece of equipment on there last week,” Smith added.
Winter road maintenance is a fairly high-tech operation these days. All of the equipment is fully monitored—generating records of when and where the plow touches down on road, and exactly how much and where it spreads sand and salt.
And wherever there is a cellular connection, this data is sent immediately to the contractor and MTO.
At any given time, MTO officials know what equipment is on the road, where it is, and what it is doing.
The agency also does field audits, and reviews all the documentation generated in the equipment.
It has road surface and sub-surface sensors that track road conditions, and a weather info network with 27 dedicated stations west of Wawa.
“We also talk to the OPP regularly,” noted Smith (it is the OPP’s responsibility to close roads when weather conditions get too bad).
“And we review all major accidents with them to determine if road conditions were a factor.”
Smith said it actually was fairly rare for road conditions to be designated a major factor in an accident.
Driver error—specifically, failing to adjust to conditions (usually this means going too fast)—most often is the leading cause of winter accidents.
Smith told the RRDMA delegates he does appreciate hearing from them about specific road concerns, and that the MTO encourages the public to reach out when road conditions don’t seem right.
To obtain information about current road conditions, call 5-1-1 (an automated telephone system) or visit www.ontario.ca/511
To ask a question or express a concern, e-mail email@example.com or call 1-800-268-4686.
To express an urgent concern, contact the contractor directly (contractors are required to return all calls within 24 hours and keep a log of calls for MTO review).
Transfield (Kenora region) can be reached at 1-888-933-3326 while the phone number for IMOS (Thunder Bay West region) is 1-855-680-0861.