It was by ‘pure chance’ that an engineer working for the transport department of Quebec examined the plans of private contractor SM Construction Inc. relating to the Monette Viaduct project on Autoroute 15, according to Michel Gagnon the president of an engineering association representing government engineers in the Canadian province.
That the chance examination took place was a good thing, Gagnon says, as the engineer found that the plans did not meet seismic norms and were subject to collapse in the event of an earthquake, leading to the department ordering a halt to work on the project.
That episode, Gagnon says, illustrates the extent to which the provincial government of Quebec, specifically the transport department, has lost control over government construction projects.
He adds that another, more drastic illustration of the point came in the form of the July, 2011 collapse of a 25-tonne concrete beam in a sunken portion of the Ville-Marie Autoroute.
Commenting on statements made by former Police Chief Jacques Duchesneau during a testimony into corruption and collusion to fix prices in Quebec’s construction industry, in which Duchesneau lamented a loss of expertise in Quebec’s transport department, Gagnon is quoted in The Montreal Gazette as saying it is only ever by chance that a transport department engineer ever looks at a contract.
“The government has no control of its construction sites,” he says.
For many years, Gagnon says, the department’s engineers have been lured away by higher salaries in the private sector – a situation that was exacerbated by the raising of fee schedules for external engineers by 20 per cent in October, 2003.
At the same time, the Montreal Gazette report says, the department has gone from managing $CAD930 million ($A898 million) in contracts per year to managing over $4 billion in contracts now, meaning that fewer engineers now have to handle a much larger volume of work.
As a result, the department has had to rely on external engineers for advice, on some occasions having to hire its own former engineers for projects at private sector rates.
Along with an inability to oversee projects, this has led to other problems. Due to a lack of internal cost estimates for projects – caused by insufficient numbers of qualified engineers on staff – Quebec’s auditor general noted that it was difficult to evaluate whether fees paid to engineering firms were realistic in relation to services provided, making accountability on public projects difficult to enforce.
Not surprisingly, many believe the solution lies in the department beefing up its own engineering capacity. Toward this end, the province’s Transport Minister Pierre Moreau and Treasury Board President Michelle Courchesne say the department intends to hire an additional 970 engineers over the next five years.
Duchesneau testified before the Charbonneau Commission, which is investigating collusion and corruption in the industry, on Monday, stating that the department’s engineers have a lot on their shoulders, and that even hiring 1,000 new engineers tomorrow would not solve the problems in the short term because of the time required to develop expertise.