POLITICS

Ontario government aims to improve snow removal in wake of auditor's report

06/26/2015 03:37 EDT | Updated 06/26/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - New measures meant to improve snow removal on Ontario highways and keep motorists informed of road conditions will be in place by the winter, the provincial government said Friday.

The changes come in response to a scathing report from Ontario's auditor general, who in April found the province had scrimped on winter road maintenance in order to save money.

Tranportation Minister Steven Del Duca said $5 million has been earmarked in this year's budget to address the auditor's concerns.

The province will provide more equipment such as standalone spreaders in remote rural areas and congested urban ones, and apply more anti-icing liquid to roads before winter storms, he said.

The 511 website, which lists road conditions for provincial highways, will include time-stamped reports and images from live cameras.

Dash cameras will be installed in patrol vehicles as well as 30 standalone cameras at strategic roadside locations.

Another program will also allow residents in the Owen Sound and Simcoe County areas to see where plows are operating on nearby highways.

A new winter maintenance contract in Kenora sets a precedent for greater oversight of snow-clearing crews, including setting standards for the use of salt, sand and anti-icing liquid, Del Duca said.

"These are measures that will help keep drivers better informed and measure that will improve oversight to ensure contractors are meeting our maintenance standards," he said.

Other improvements will be made throughout the winter and beyond, he said, and any additional costs will be paid from the ministry's current allotment.

The Opposition said the new measures do nothing to "ease the fears drivers have on winter roads as they try to get home after a long day of work or visit family across the province."

"Over the last six years winter road safety across the province, and especially in Northern Ontario, has deteriorated," said transportation critic Michael Harris. "Winter roads became treacherous as the government lowered safety standards. The Liberals put drivers' lives at risk to save a few bucks."

The New Democrats, meanwhile, argue the province should stop relying on private contractors to clear roads.

"Privatizing winter road maintenance has put drivers in Ontario at risk all across the province," transportation critic Wayne Gates said in a statement.

The province started shifting winter maintenance work to private contractors in the 1980s; by 2000, it was all handled by the private sector. At this time, five contractors share the responsibility for 20 maintenance areas.

The government also switched to a performance-based contract in 2009, allowing contractors to decide how best to meet the maintenance requirements laid out by the province.

In her report, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said the government was so bent on cutting costs for winter road maintenance that it gave contracts to companies that didn't have the equipment to clear highways of snow.

Prior to the contract changes in 2009, Ontario's most-travelled highways were cleared about 2.1 hours after a storm, but that had increased to an average of 4.7 hours by 2013-14.

Contractors started using less salt, sand and anti-icing liquids on highways, which they patrolled less often than before the contract changes, she added.