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Opinion  

Best friend, best price?

By Dermod Travis

If you're just tuning back in to B.C. politics, you may have missed a great political adaptation of West Side Story this summer, where two rival gangs – the Liberistas and the Unionistas – compete for the affection of B.C. taxpayers on public infrastructure projects.

The musical was loosely based on this summer's announcement by the B.C. government that key public-sector infrastructure projects will be tied to pay scales, apprenticeship training, job opportunities for under-represented groups and a union card for any worker “within 30 days of starting employment.”

Any company – union or non-union – may bid on a project, with the understanding that their workers will be required to join a recognized union within 30 days. 

Personally, I subscribe to the W.C. Field's principle: “I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

To oversee all of this, B.C. has a spanking new Crown corporation: B.C. Infrastructure Benefits Inc.

The government estimates that their new community benefits approach will increase the cost of infrastructure projects by seven per cent. Left unsaid is whether the government meant at the starting line or the finishing line. 

British Columbians would consider themselves lucky to have had the final price tag for recent infrastructure projects across the province come in at seven per cent over the starting line bid. Imagine Victoria's Johnson St. Bridge with a final price tag of $71.8 million (seven per cent over its initial budget of $63 million) or the Port Mann bridge at $1.6 billion, not its final price tag of $3.6 billion.

There wasn't a peep of outrage from the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) when Site C became a $10.7 billion project last December, a 22 per cent increase over the 2014 estimate and a 62 per cent increase over former premier Gordon Campbell's $6.6 billion estimate in 2010.

Tough to complain too loudly about those cost overruns, though, when some of the companies involved are sponsoring your annual golf tournament, as some did this summer with the ICBA.

The usual hanger-ons came out to support both gangs.

Political donations were slung. A “payoff” to the NDP's union buddies, who have – in the words of the Liberistas – donated more than $2.5 million to that party since 2005. 

The Liberistas didn't mention their donations to the B.C. Liberal party for their “payoff” over the last 16 years.

The ICBA, with just nine of their allies, donated $2.9 million to the Liberals in the same period.

Instead of getting to the meat of the issue, part of the debate pivoted to, well, meat. More specifically, menus at work camps under the agreement. 

The Liberistas may be more familiar with the term “per diem” when it comes to meals.

No mention of the “hotel-like” work camp at Site C from them either. 

The $470 million camp – built to house 2,000 workers – comes with a movie theatre, licensed lounge, running track and basketball court, physiotherapy, massage and hairdressing services. 

Where does this leave the beleaguered taxpayer?

Under the Liberals, the order of the day was best price, at the starting gate at least. Under the NDP, it's now best friend. 

Overlooked in all of it: best value. By trying to cut corners and shave costs do we end up with inferior infrastructure?

The new Abbotsford Regional Hospital – one of B.C.'s first public-private partnerships – opened in 2008. Within six years, the pipes started to fail, forcing lengthy renovations. 

Steel for Victoria's Johnson St. bridge was rejected before it had even left China.

Transmission towers – manufactured in India for B.C. Hydro's Interior to Lower Mainland Transmission Line – “twisted, bent and collapsed” and, yet, Hydro hired one of the same contractors this year for work on Site C.

Such failures add to the the costs and delay projects, but by all means focus on the salad at work camps instead.

Taxpayers, however, would be better served with answers as to why an independent review by Perrin, Thorau and Associates – commissioned by B.C.'s Ministry of Finance – on the Port Mann bridge project found that the former government “lacked the necessary resources to directly manage the bridge's design and construction” and “wasn't able to independently estimate costs and schedules for construction.”

– Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.

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