To some of the more business-minded Liberals who worked alongside Dalton McGuinty, there were few prouder achievements during his nine years as premier than the establishment of Infrastructure Ontario.
Following decades of neglect in updating everything from hospitals to highways, the agency has had considerable success in reducing the province's so-called infrastructure deficit through "alternative financing and procurement" – essentially a form of public-private partnerships in which government is able to keep its costs down and avoid carrying all the risk for major projects.
It is a model that is supposed to remain key to the agenda of Mr. McGuinty's successor, Kathleen Wynne, particularly when it comes to the expansion of public transit. But an ongoing saga that came to a head this week has veterans of the system privately cautioning about a perceived threat to one of the most essential components of its business model – the depoliticization of procurement decisions.
As far as the eye can see, it was perfectly reasonable for Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Glen Murray to take ownership of safety concerns involving the construction of the Herb Gray Parkway in Windsor, a $1.4-billion project aimed at improving traffic flow near the border. Concerns were raised about the quality of hundreds of girders being used to support tunnels and bridges; Mr. Murray intervened in June by appointing an expert panel to review the issue, while related work stopped. By the time the panel's report was made public on Wednesday, an agreement had been reached with the builders to modify support beams the experts identified as potentially not up to snuff.
The only question being raised at Queen's Park – by the third-party NDP – is why Mr. Murray didn't get involved sooner. But advocates for Infrastructure Ontario and for the builders, along with at least a few people within government, are questioning whether Mr. Murray should have gotten so involved at all. They argue such concerns are not uncommon during construction projects, and are usually resolved much more smoothly without political involvement.
One section of the panel's report, which otherwise does much to justify Mr. Murray's interest, seems to suggest he might have been heavy-handed. "By mid-June," it notes, "the parties had begun discussing the terms of a draft, 'without prejudice' 11-point plan to attempt to address the issues." Then "the issues escalated to the Minister's office," at which point this remedy was shelved and work halted.
While it is entirely possible that Mr. Murray was justifiably unconvinced the draft plan was adequate, there are murmurings from around IO and the builders that this was about more than just safety.
Domestic companies and trade unions are less than thrilled that the Spanish company Tierra Armada S.A. – "the Spaniards," as a local NDP MPP referred to them at one point – is at the forefront of the consortium that got the Windsor contract. And there is some possibility that the government, which has made no secret of its desire to see Ontario companies get more work, was influenced by that.
There are also suggestions of a turf war between IO and the Ministry of Transportation, which has its own experience with construction. And anytime Mr. Murray is involved, there is always the matter of his bull-in-a-china-shop personality as well. All this, along with buzz that Ms. Wynne wants to adjust how contracts are awarded to help fulfill her promise to create jobs, is enough to raise some questions about the stability of Ontario's procurement model going forward.
Support for how IO goes about its work is not universal, and it is possible to look at the way the parkway safety concerns came to a head and conclude that it made the case for more government engagement and oversight, not less.
But for those McGuinty-era Liberals who tried to depoliticize these sorts of projects, the last thing they wanted to see was Mr. Murray dominating the headlines in Windsor.