Companies hoping to snag a piece of the biggest roadwork contract in Quebec history will first have to prove they're corruption-free, a major test for the province as it aims to fix its failing infrastructure while tackling graft in the construction industry.
Premier Pauline Marois's government has set a $3.7-billion ceiling on the cost of rebuilding Montreal's Turcot interchange, a critical and decrepit spaghetti interchange in the heart of the city that moves 300,000 vehicles daily. Soon, the roadway could stand as a symbolic challenge to Quebec's promise to carry on business while holding the construction world to account.
Pushing forward with badly needed roadwork without benefiting firms tarred by corruption allegations has become a new dilemma for elected officials in Quebec – a problem sure to recur as the federal government pours billions into infrastructure spending across the country. Last week, Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum asked Montrealers whether they wanted their city's potholes plugged by some asphalting companies named before the Charbonneau commission into corruption and collusion.
For the Turcot interchange, all the consortiums vying for the construction windfall will be scrutinized under new provincial legislation that requires companies bidding on public contracts to bear the seal of integrity by the province's securities commission, known as the AMF.
"All the firms and companies invited to participate in the project will have to obtain a certificate of good conduct from the AMF, and this, before signing the contract," Ms. Marois told a news conference in Montreal. No one, she added, will get special treatment.
One of the five consortia in the Turcot project is Groupe Futur Turcot, headed by SNC-Lavalin Construction Inc.; its group includes Louisbourg SBC, associated with construction magnate Tony Accurso. SNC-Lavalin is currently under police investigation in connection with the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. Mr. Accurso pleaded guilty recently to tax fraud, and his companies are part a wider investigation into corruption in the construction industry.
Another consortium, Groupement Nouvel Échangeur Turcot, includes the engineering firm Dessau Inc. and Roche Ltée, Groupe-conseil. Testimony before the Charbonneau commission into corruption showed that both companies were allegedly involved in illegal political party fundraising activities. Two other consortia seeking consideration for the final bidding process also included engineering firms which were named during the Charbonneau commission for alleged involvement in illegal fundraising.
If a consortium includes a company that fails to meet ethical standards for Turcot, the consortium would either jettison the company or the company itself would "have to take action to correct the situation," Ms. Marois said.
Carla Duval, spokeswoman for Infrastructure Quebec, the government body overseeing the bidding process for the Turcot exchange, said the names of the three qualifying consortia will be made public in the coming days. The groups will then have a year to complete their bids, and the final choice will be made in the fall of 2014. Work on the exchange is set to begin in early 2015 and be completed by 2020, two years later than the most recent projection.
Despite the serious blows dealt to the industry since the probe into corruption began last year, Quebec road builders said the inquiry has undermined the ability of only a small number of companies to bid on contracts, and that the vast majority of others have the expertise and integrity needed to comply with rules and undertake a huge project such as the Turcot exchange. However, the industry acknowledged it was being challenged by the new rules imposed by Bill 1, the integrity legislation, which it said may create costly delays.
"What we noticed was that the delays are much too long. Maybe it's just a question of adjustments that are needed. But if it stays like this, it is too long and that could affect the completion of some projects on schedule," said Gisèle Bourque, director-general of the Quebec road builders and heavy construction association.
The Montreal Chamber of Commerce, which attended Monday's announcement, said it supports Quebec's move to clean up corruption in the building industry but is also concerned about delays to construction projects that are crucial to Montreal's growth.
"The challenge is not just to respect a process with integrity, but to also respect the timetable carefully," president Michel Leblanc said after the government announcement.
The province said the newly minted Turcot project was revised to include more public transit and green options. The new plan will be overseen by an independent committee mandated to keep a lid on cost overruns and time delays.