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The Globe and Mail

Alberta’s auditor general urges better inspection of province’s bridges

Alberta Transportation Minister Ric McIver said his department has already taken some action in response to the auditor general’s report.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Alberta's bridges are not falling down, but the province needs to do a better job inspecting them, the province's auditor general reported Thursday.

Merwan Saher said his recommendation to the Transportation Department is simple: "You have a well-designed (inspection) system. Use it."

Mr. Saher, in his latest report, said his team found that Alberta's 4,400 bridges are not in imminent danger of collapse but work needs to be done to make sure they stay that way.

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"The risk of unsafe bridges is unnecessarily high," he said.

"The department can't demonstrate that bridges are maintained to their standards."

The government contracts out basic bridge inspections to private contractors, but Mr. Saher said they found that half the inspections were being done by inspectors whose certification had lapsed.

Inspections done by people who have let their certification lapse can't be entered into government records. But Mr. Saher said the department overrode those safeguards to allow the non-certified inspections to be put into the database.

He said the timeline for inspections was followed in three of four regions, but said in the fourth region, 150 inspections were done a year late.

He said the department developed a spot audit process to monitor the quality of inspections, but didn't follow it consistently. When spot audits were done they revealed inaccurate inspection ratings, he said.

Also, Mr. Saher found that the department doesn't have a way to deal with those contractors who deliver shoddy inspections.

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Transportation Minister Ric McIver said his department was made aware of the concerns months ago when a draft report from Mr. Saher was circulated.

He said they have already taken action to make fixes, particularly in making sure all inspectors have up-to-date certifications.

"They all have (their certifications) now, I can assure you," said Mr. McIver. "And we have put systems in place that it will be checked on an annual basis.

"It's administration, but it's really important administration. We weren't checking the boxes on a regular enough basis, and we are now."

Mr. Saher also said he's worried about future budgeting for bridge repairs.

The department says it will need $900 million over the next decade to replace bridges but right now is budgeting for only $25 million a year.

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The department, said Mr. Saher, told him that the plan to address the shortfall in the short term is to close bridges or reduce the maximum weight of the trucks travelling over them.

Mr. McIver said they will work on the funding.

"We got a warning, if you will, from the auditor, when we're budgeting for repairs to bridges we need to make sure there are adequate resources to keep those bridges safe," he said.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said closing bridges is not the answer.

"Those bridges are there for a reason. You don't just downgrade them or shut them down because you don't want to maintain them," he said.

Mr. Mason also said the government needs to revisit contracting out the inspectors and look at hiring them in-house to make sure their certification and other training stays current.

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said the report reflects problems at the top of the department.

"There's a lack of oversight," said Mr. Sherman.

"Our economy can't function if we don't have good infrastructure, and we can't have good infrastructure if we don't monitor the infrastructure."

Mr. Saher also went after Mr. McIver's department on reimbursing employees for driving their own cars and trucks at work.

Mr. Saher said the department missed a chance to save taxpayers $450,000 by delaying a decision to have employees who drive a lot on the job to lease cars or use government vehicles rather than getting reimbursed 50 cents a kilometre for mileage.

He said some employees were getting an extra thousand dollars or more every a month this way.

Mr. McIver said the program was delayed by paperwork and approvals, but said they have already taken action on it.

"We have a couple of managers now driving government-owned vehicles and 50 more vehicles on order," he said.

Mr. Mason said the car issue "may be small, but these things do add up.

"When (taxpayers' money) is wasted like that, it's a failure in trust on the part of this government."

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