The Quebec government is proposing to create a transportation agency aimed at eliminating political influence and corruption in the awarding of road building and maintenance contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Transportation Minister Sylvain Gaudreault said an agency would be better equipped than his department to change the culture around road infrastructure work.
“We have to change the institution to create new ways of doing things. We want to put up as many borders and barriers as possible [against political interference] to avoid the risk of collusion and corruption,” Mr. Gaudreault said.
In a bill tabled on Wednesday, the PQ minority government proposed to have the independent agency in place by April 1, 2015. More than 5,000 employees who work for the Ministry of Transportation would be transferred.
Mr. Gaudreault said that having an agency oversee road building contracts would be cheaper and more efficient than keeping it within the ministry. He was unable to say how much would be saved.
Testimony at the Charbonneau commission revealed price-fixing and kickback schemes among engineering firms and construction companies with close political ties had inflated the cost of publicly funded projects. Mr. Gaudreault estimated that laws to eliminate such practices have saved his ministry $240-million this year.
Opposition parties so far have co-operated with the Parti Québécois minority government to pass anti-corruption legislation. But they said they failed to see how a transportation agency would reduce political influence in the tendering process. They argued that an independent agency would be too far removed from elected members to be held accountable.
“We have concerns with respect to the accountability an agency would have towards the Ministry of Transportation,” said Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard.
The Coalition Avenir Québec party said an agency would only create new problems. CAQ MNA Jacques Duchesneau once headed an anti-collusion unit at the Ministry of Transportation and tabled a report in 2011 calling the construction industry a haven of corruption and illegal political party fundraising. That led to the creation of the Charbonneau commission.
“The agency is only a way for the government to avoid taking important decisions,” Mr. Duchesneau said, adding that 10 years ago, the Ministry of Transportation had the best engineers in the province, but lost them to the private sector. Creating an agency, he argued, would do little to eliminate political influence in the awarding of contracts.
Without opposition support, the agency will never see the light of day but would likely be part of the PQ election platform in a possible vote next spring.