The B.C. NDP government’s union-restricted road construction program is sparking new questions about a steep increase in costs, even as a section of Trans-Canada Highway widening work has been significantly scaled back.
Widening the Trans Canada Highway east of Kamloops is one of three major projects the NDP government designated for what it describes as “community benefits agreements.” They restrict the workforce to 19 mostly U.S.-based construction trade unions under a 336-page agreement with a new Crown corporation created to administer it. The others are replacement of the Pattullo Bridge at Surrey, and the Broadway subway extension in Vancouver.
The latest contract to be let under the agreement is for a section of Highway 1 at Salmon Arm, announced in June at a budget of $185 million, including $31 million from Ottawa. The announcement by Transportation Minister Claire Trevena explained the reduced size, three-year delay and $61 million increase in costs was because the 2016 project was completed without sufficient engineering and local engagement work.
Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone, the former B.C. Liberal transportation minister, said the work was done by 2017, including consulting the Neskonlith Band. Questioned on the project by Stone and Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo, Trevena said there is still no agreement with Neskonlith to proceed with a large portion of the widening.
Stone said the 9.9 km project has been reduced to 4.9 km, “with a two-lane section stuck in the middle between Hoffman’s Bluff and Chase West,” and elimination of an underpass.
“These massive cost overruns and project scope reductions are the direct result of the NDP delaying these projects for upwards of three years, on top of additional costs in the millions of dollars resulting from the NDP’s imposition of community benefit agreements requiring projects to utilize labour of one of 19 NDP approved unions,” Stone told Black Press July 6.
Trevena said agreement with Neskonlith is needed for the federal share of the money to be provided, and other costs were affected by a “hot market” for construction, up until the COVID-19 pandemic had broad effects on the economy.
“I think what we have now is the realistic budget,” Trevena said.
A tight construction labour market and high prices for steel and asphalt were also cited in the 35-per cent jump in cost for the first contract awarded under the union agreement, east of Revelstoke.
Trevena noted the first Salmon Arm contract went to a Kamloops-based company, and said the new union structure ensures more local, female and Indigenous people being hired as apprentices. That claim has been a source of bitter dispute with newer unions and non-union construction companies, who say they employ 85 per cent of people currently working in construction trades.
Premier John Horgan and the B.C. and Yukon Building Trades say it’s the completion of apprenticeships that is most important, and traditional building trades have an edge there.
The new Crown corporation, B.C. Infrastructure Benefits, controls payroll, union dues and benefits for designated public projects. It diverts an additional 25 cents per hour worked to a new union organization called the Allied Infrastructure and Related Construction Council of B.C., and another seven cents per hour to building trades union funds for health and safety.
Non-union or independent union-affiliated companies can still bid on projects, but their employees are required to join one of the designated international unions within 30 days of starting work.
When the $1.38 billion contract to build a new Pattullo Bridge was awarded in January, Trevena acknowledged that the union-only deal would add about seven per cent to the cost. The 83-year-old four-lane bridge is being replaced with another four-lane bridge with added pedestrian and bicycle lanes, and a new off-ramp to Highway 17, the South Fraser Perimeter Road.
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