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Rush to spend puts billions at risk

Policy changes needed to ensure smart will trump fast government spending, report says

DON CAYO, VANCOUVER SUN DECEMBER 21, 2009

Governments’ focus on “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects and
inflexible deadlines could easily result in billions of dollars worth of
shoddy or unnecessary work, says a report by the Consulting Engineers of B.C.

The report, released today, calls for policy changes to ensure that smart
spending will trump fast spending of the billions of dollars earmarked for
public infrastructure.

The current rules for federal and provincial stimulus spending don’t make
proper room for such key prerequisites as field investigation,
environmental assessment, feasibility assessment, or comparison of
alternatives and planning, it says.

Also, any federal funding contribution for a stimulus project comes with a
March 2011 completion deadline. This is fuelling a mad scramble for grants to improve or support everything from community amenities to economic
development to social or environmental supports.

“Communities are worried,” says association president Mike Currie, “that
if they don’t move quickly enough to meet the deadline they run the risk
of building an outdoor curling rink when what they really wanted was an
indoor hockey arena.”

The sums at risk are huge. The engineers say in an accompanying news
release that Ottawa and Victoria have allocated a total of $20 billion
toward infrastructure spending in B.C. over 2009 and 2010, and the report
catalogues a complex web of funding over varying time periods from all
three levels of government.

The $20-billion includes the normal federal and provincial capital
spending as well as local government projects and the $4.4 billion
announced this year by the provincial government for accelerated
infrastructure projects. The projects range from several tens of millions
for highway or housing projects in several parts of the province, to a few
tens of thousands for small parks or greenways.

The report notes a big positive impact from all this spending. In addition
to allowing communities to finally start gaining ground on a backlog of
infrastructure needs, it has also meant big boosts in the number of jobs
and in consumer confidence. These in turn, have bolstered next year’s
growth estimates from 2.5 per cent to 2.9.

The report doesn’t identify any actual projects where money has been spent
on the wrong things or without proper groundwork being done first.

Glenn Martin, the executive director of the engineers’ group, said it’s
still early days for the stimulus program — too soon to point the finger
at any specific projects.

But the report flags the danger loud and clear. And it makes several
recommendations, some that would provide more work for the group’s
members. They include:

- Extending the March 2011 completion deadline for projects that get
federal funds.

- Selecting consultants based on qualifications, not just price.

- Retaining consultants for the duration of each project.

- Outsourcing appropriate components of projects.

- Using public private partnerships or other alternatives to traditional
procurement where appropriate.

- Streamlining federal and provincial environmental approval processes.

“It’s important to ensure these projects are done right, and not just done
quickly,” said Currie.

dcayo@vancouversun.com

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