Privatization “deteriorating” quality of snow removal in Ontario, Auditor General

Snow may be slowly disappearing across Ontario, but the cost of clearing it from the province’s roads and highways lingers on — and the public could be left holding the bill, thanks to the growing trend of privatizing road maintenance.

Private companies hired to clear Ontario highways owe more than $2.5 million in fines for poor performance during the winter of 2015/16, according to a recent CBC report. And those fines will likely have increased during winter of 2016/17, given the performance record of private contractors in previous years. Yet despite growing complaints about the quality of privatized snow plowing in Ontario, the provincial government can do little to collect from their contractors.

Ontario’s Auditor General, Bonnie Lysyk, investigated the province’s road maintenance program in 2015 and issued a report stating that highways weren’t being cleared as quickly or thoroughly as they have been in the past.

Her report identified changes the government made to its procurement process in 2009 that favoured low bidders and “did not adequately factor in contractors’ ability to deliver required services.”

“Service has deteriorated,” her report concludes, and rising legal costs aren’t being considered. Ontario's long-term contracts for winter maintenance give snow-clearing companies the right to appeal the fines, which many do, forcing the provincial government to spend time and money doing dispute-resolution.

The government could also find itself on the hook for expenses related to poor performance, Lysyk warned: Under the government-operated road liability insurance program, it’s the province — not contractors — that can be responsible for paying damages from vehicle collisions caused by poor road maintenance.

“When private-sector contractors assume the responsibility for providing what may be an essential service to the public—where their work can impact, in this case, road conditions for driver safety—the expectation is that contractors step up and deliver,” Lysyk wrote. In the case of privatized snow clearing, that doesn’t appear to be happening.