MTO minister promises improved maintenance for Manitoulin Island winter highways, roads

TORONTO—“Be careful what you wish for” might, in hindsight, be words to live by for the provincial government following a less than favourable report and list of recommendations regarding winter road maintenance in the province the Ministry of Transportation had requested from the provincial Auditor General.

“Earlier today, the Auditor General released her report on winter highway maintenance in Ontario,” said Ontario Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca in a release following the report. “I would like to thank the auditor for her thorough and thoughtful review and recommendations.” You know the news must be bad when the gratitude is effusive.

In an exclusive telephone interview with The Expositor on the afternoon following the release, however, Minister Del Duca insisted that the government had already taken concrete steps to address the shortcomings outlined in the report and that his ministry is taking full responsibility, recognised the department’s shortcomings, and pointed out that it was the ministry that had requested the study in 2014.

Minister Del Duca noted that his ministry has already begun implementing eight of the report recommendations and that 105 new pieces of equipment have been put in place, 50 in southern Ontario, and that 20 new inspectors and five new area engineers had been hired to ensure standards are being properly met and audited. The ministry has also renegotiated cost sharing agreements on sand and salt, all of which were among the recommendations of the auditor in her report. “We are on top of it,” said the minister.

The province is also instituting 28 roadside monitoring cameras to ensure compliance measures on heavily travelled southern roadways and retendered a contract for maintenance in the Kenora district.

A greater emphasis will be made on “monitoring standards on the ground,” noted the minister, along with a better educational program to encourage public reporting on road conditions across the province.

“I have directed ministry staff to provide me with an action plan within 60 days that outlines plans to further strengthen and improve winter maintenance, while addressing the auditor’s recommendations, to ensure that we are doing everything possible to provide Ontarians with safe highway conditions,” said Minister Del Duca, with the further commitment that “I will make that action plan public.”

Despite the assurances from the minister, and the new funding for winter maintenance contained in the budget, the opposition was not buying it—taking pains to draw parallels with the province’s plan to privatize portions of Ontario Hydro’s transmission grid.

“This report proves what the NDP has been saying for years: privatization has failed,” said Gilles Bisson, MPP, Timmins-James Bay in a release. “The Auditor-General has shown that our roads, particularly in the North, have become less safe under the Liberal government. Just think what it will happen if they privatize Hydro One.” The same release also takes a shot at the premier, noting that the privatization of the road maintenance contracts took place under her watch. “Kathleen Wynne was Transportation Minister in 2010-11, when many of the new Area Maintenance Contracts were signed,” it trumpeted.

The NDP release pointed out their party has raised the issue of poor winter road maintenance “for years.” Pointing out that in 2012, they launched the Northern Road Report to monitor complaints. “One year ago,” continues the NDP release, “Kenora-Rainy River MPP Sarah Campbell successfully passed a motion demanding that the government review its winter road maintenance contracts and improve winter road conditions,” suggesting full credit for forcing the Transportation Ministry into requesting the report.

“I have also asked the Auditor General to provide a follow up review of the winter maintenance program at the end of the next winter season to review our progress,” said Minister Del Duca adding the assurance that “I look forward to reporting back on our action plan, our progress implementing the auditor’s recommendations and the additional steps we will be taking to enhance winter maintenance in Ontario.”