From hospitals and courthouses to roads and bridges, Ontario spends billions on infrastructure projects each year — and a growing number are earning profits for private companies. When the province constructs or updates something like a hospital, it has two options: managing and financing the construction itself or having the private sector finance the project and do the work.
Some projects, such as Ontario’s Highway 407, are also operated by private companies (at a profit). These public-private partnerships, also known as P3s, add significant cost and risk to projects. In 2014, Ontario’s auditor general found that financing 74 infrastructure projects through private-public partnerships cost Ontarians at least $8 billion more than if they had been financed and built publicly.
Quality falls short in several P3 deals
Since private companies are accountable to their shareholders, they look for efficiencies to cut costs and drive up profit. This can often lead to corner-cutting and a decline in quality that leaves the public paying the bill for improvements. A case in point: A 2016 report from the auditor general found that some highways paved by private contractors cracked prematurely and needed to be repaved or repaired after only one year of use. The unanticipated repair work cost the public $23 million.
Red flags raised re: safety
When construction is contracted out, work becomes less accountable. Quality and safety issues that are traditionally overseen by the government are addressed by the contractors themselves, creating an obvious conflict of interest. In some cases, engineers in Ontario have provided false building safety certifications. This poses a serious safety concern since sign-off by Quality Verification Engineers provides assurance that specifications have been met and the structure will be safe for public use.
Upside-down is good enough
In one instance, a contractor installed a steel cage to support an overhead highway sign upside down. An engineer who was supposed to be present at the site was not, but he signed off on the work anyway, affirming that the bridge and steel cage were built to specifications. If the bridge had been left unfixed, it would have caused the highway sign to collapse onto traffic below.
Why public works
When governments opt to build infrastructure themselves, they bring greater accountability and transparency to projects. Just as importantly, they own the infrastructure they’ve invested in and aren’t subject to the costly decisions and overruns that come with private partnership.