Les Leyne: Scope-shrink meets cost-creep on highway jobs

Nobody ever said building highways in B.C. would be easy. But New Democrats seem to be going out of their way to make the ventures as expensive and time-consuming as possible.

There was an exchange last week in the legislature between past and present highways ministers that delved into this phenomenon.

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It was on the topic of four-laning the Trans-Canada Highway east of Kamloops.

Liberal critic Todd Stone, the former minister, faced off against Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Claire Trevena.

The overall project of extending the four-lane sections from Kamloops to the Alberta border has been underway for years. But it will still take another billion dollars over the next three years to complete. Judging by performance to date, those cost and time figures are very loose estimates.

The Opposition suspects the community benefits agreement the NDP government created to mandate fairer hiring on public job sites is a big reason. It set up a new Crown corporation to act as a hiring hall and stipulates mandatory membership in select unions for anyone looking for work on the project.

Trevena was not interested in talking about the new cost those deals impose, only the benefits they are supposed to create.

But the deals appear to be driving some of the scope-shrink and cost-creep that Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer identified earlier.

In one specific phase, said Stone, the original plan for 9.9 contiguous kilometres of four-laning (Hoffman’s Bluff-Jade Mountain) has turned into a 4.9-kilometre job that will cost $61 million more that the original $199 million estimate.

There’s one less interchange and an emergency access has been skipped. One stretch has been postponed because there’s no accommodation agreement with a resident First Nation. That means millions in federal money is off the table for the time being.

Trevena said the original plan was a “conceptual design … The figures were definitely not solid.

“I think what we have now is the realistic budget … What was proffered before, unfortunately, wasn’t grounded in a foundation.”

She took pains to note that Stone was responsible for the original estimate.

That was in 2015, which means it’s taken five years to plan and re-plan what turns out to be 4.9 kilometres of road.

Stone said it was ready to go in 2017, but Trevena suspended all work on that job, as she did on the Massey Tunnel replacement.

“Of course the costs are going to go up when you delay a major highway construction project by three years,” he said.

Even Trevena had to concede “there’s a sense of frustration” in the community about the delay.

Further along the road, Liberal MLA Greg Kyllo (Shuswap) had a similar story about the Salmon Arm section.

It was originally announced by the Liberals in 2016 as a six-kilometre-long paving job for $162.7 million.

Now it’s been scaled back to 3.3 kilometres and the price estimate has jumped to $184.7 million.

It’s currently out to tender. One section has been postponed because there’s no accommodation agreement with a resident First Nation. That means millions in federal money is off the table for the time being.

Trevena said they did due diligence on the project and were facing a hot construction market that drove up prices.

There are no cost figures for exactly how much community benefits agreements are adding to the road jobs. More accurately, the cost of the agreements is not being made public.

The goal is worthy — spur the employment of local people, Indigenous people and under-represented groups, by taking more control of the hiring process.

But that goal has been widely adopted in construction for several years.

If the government was trying to make more room in an all-white male industry it would be a different story.

But the industry was already broadening its hiring, partly due to the labour shortage. Until the difference in diversity is made clear, it’s hard to see how community benefit agreements are worth the costs.

Just So You Know: There’s one thing the Trans-Canada Highway projects can save money on. They won’t have to bother putting up the “Completed on time and on budget” billboards if they ever finish the work.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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