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Alberta government, road builders' group feud over $500-million deal involving B.C. firm

A battle is revving up between the Alberta government and its road builders over reports that more than $500-million worth of road maintenance contracts are being given to a firm in British Columbia.

The Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association says Alberta firms can do the work and should be given a chance to bid. The association also says such a contract would violate interprovincial free trade rules and could result in court action.

“It doesn’t live up to the trade agreements that the province has signed,” Ron Glen, head of the road builders' association, said in an interview Wednesday. “We have nothing against competition coming in from another province. An open [bidding] process – that’s all we wanted to see come out of this.”

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The deal would see B.C.-based Emcon Services take over maintenance of more than 40 per cent of Alberta’s roads over the next four to five years. The association estimates that would be worth $150-million a year.

The contracts had been held by Carillion Canada, but that firm is now under creditor protection.

Emcon president Frank Rizzardo would not confirm the numbers, but said he already has a deal in writing with Alberta pending the approval from an Ontario bankruptcy judge next week.

“Everything is tentative in draft and subject to the court approval,” Mr. Rizzardo said in an interview.

“Nothing is final. It’s like getting engaged. You don’t get married until somebody presides over you.”

He said the contracts run to 2022 or 2023.

Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason was not available for comment but his office, in a statement, said it will address the issue more fully after the court proceedings conclude.

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“We are currently involved in negotiations with a third party that is working to purchase Carillion’s highway maintenance operations in Alberta and Ontario. Once it is approved by the courts, we will be able to release more details,” said the statement.

The department said Carillion’s contracts could not be retendered at this time because of the court protection Carillion is under.

The province has been working since January, when Carillion’s British-based parent company collapsed, to ensure its highways are cleared of snow and maintained.

Carillion Canada has since been put under creditor protection and pieces of it have been sold off. Highway maintenance is set to go before a judge in Toronto next week.

The road builders' association has been working with the province and, in letters to Mr. Mason and his department, had been sounding alarm bells over suggestions of a deal with Emcon. The association said it wants answers to reports that not only is the province giving the contracts to Emcon, it is making the deal more lucrative.

Mr. Rizzardo wouldn’t say if the contract has been improved.

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“I’m going to leave that alone if I may.”

The association said in a letter to Mr. Mason’s department three weeks ago that it takes “great offence to the inherent unfairness of the entire process when, through a private process, the government of Alberta enables a corporate buyer to negotiate its price and its own terms with government for contracts valued at an estimated $150-million annually.”

A letter sent Friday by a lawyer for the association called the matter one of grave concern. It said the association “is determined to explore, understand and assert all legal rights its members may have in this context.”

All the letters have been posted to the association’s website.

Mr. Glen said he has not received a clear answer from the province.

“The only explanation we get is that there are some overriding factors that we’re not privy to.”

Wayne Drysdale, transportation critic for the Opposition United Conservatives, said Albertans have a right to know what is going on.

“In the time that it took the NDP to negotiate this deal, it could have held an open and transparent bidding process to ensure Albertans get the best possible value for their money,” he said.

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