Municipalities offered winter road maintenance control

By Duane Hicks
Staff Writer

With many residents across the north expressing dissatisfaction with area highways this past winter, would municipalities like to take over winter road maintenance themselves?
That’s the question Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Glen Murray posed to delegates here Friday during the “bear pit” session at the annual general meeting of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association.
“I was very unhappy with the winter maintenance on our highways in Northwestern Ontario and we’ve been trying to figure out a solution to that,” Murray said.
“One of the options was to go back to area managed contracts but that’s the worst of both worlds—too much oversight for the contractors and too much cost for us,” he explained.
“We got out of it because we discovered it was the worst of both worlds.
“The other option would have been to bring it back into MTO but a previous government laid off 3,000 MTO [workers],” Murray added.
“Not only do we not have any staff, but we don’t have any Public Works yards, we don’t have a truck, we don’t even have a spark plug left,” he stressed.
Taking a page from some northern states like Maine and Minnesota. Murray suggested taking all of the money from area service contracts and transferring it to municipalities—directly or through NOMA—so they would extend their winter maintenance to include highway coverage.
The province would pay for trucks and staff while the municipalities would deliver the service, he said.
Smaller municipalities could enter into agreements with each other if they don’t have their own Public Works departments.
“We wouldn’t reduce the funding,” Murray noted.
“We exactly think that if we maintained the funding levels and maintained the money to do it, and you had shared agreements, the same way contractors have areas that they do, you could use those crews,” he remarked.
Murray added when those crews are not doing highway maintenance in one area, they would boost capacity in another.
For example, if west of Fort Frances was hit worse than to the east, more crews could be deployed to the west.
“I want to be very clear. This is not downloading. This is fully-funded,” Murray stressed.
“We do 12-year agreements . . . you would operate and control it, and it would be a mutually-negotiated contract which we wouldn’t be able to sign unless it was to your satisfaction.
“But you’ve already got crews that do this, you’ve already got the facilities, so we believe there is a very strong proposition that you could get a lot more work done and a lot more value for tax dollars if you did that,” added Murray.
“We’re not asking you to pay for it,” he reiterated. “We’re simply asking for you to manage and operate it and we would fund it.”
Murray said it would be cost-neutral for the province—they have to pay someone to do it.
But that raises the question why would they pay a private contractor when fully-competent municipal governments with Public Works exist to do it.
Murray stressed this will not be done without the municipalities’ consent.
“The only thing I am asking for today is for NOMA to decide, within a reasonable period of time, that they would like to explore this,” he said.
He added MTO has staff assigned and would like to form a working group with NOMA and area First Nations to see if they can come up with a working model that would improve area winter maintenance.
It also would provide predictable and stable employment.
“It is something we will have to think about and get back to you,” said NOMA president Dave Canfield, who also is mayor of Kenora.
The “bear pit” session also featured Northern Development and Mines minister Michael Gravelle, Municipal Affairs and Housing minister Bill Mauro, and Aboriginal Affairs minister David Zimmer.
Questions ranged from the OPP billing model and the need for roadside rest stops year-round to an assurance the region’s energy needs will be met.
They also dealt with the need for sustainable infrastructure funding, as well as the federal government’s role to contribute much more money to it.
Rainy River Councillor Gord Armstrong asked if any progress has been made since last year to promote defensive driving.
He noted that the previous night, he returned home and saw a young man who had driven his vehicle into a ditch, who obviously hadn’t taken a defensive driving course as other motorists were able to make it home safe.
“If we lose one life because we don’t teach our young people to drive defensively, I think we’re losing,” said Armstrong, noting a defensive driving course in schools would help reduce health-care costs and save lives.
Murray said Bill 173, if passed, includes upgrades to drivers’ training, improvements to the drivers’ manual, and addresses distracted driving.
A copy of Bill 173 will be sent to Armstrong for him to review and provide feedback as to whether his concerns expressed to Murray last year have been addressed.