TORONTO - Ontario ignored its own experts when it decided to prioritize building eight highways, including Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, the auditor general said Wednesday.
Both highways were key planks in Premier Doug Ford's re-election campaign in the spring.
Bonnie Lysyk said in her annual report that the minister of transportation directed the ministry to defer six higher-priority highways that had been previously approved by the Treasury Board.
Lysyk also found the ministry neglected to communicate to the government that the minister's decision was at odds with the recommendation from its own subject-matter experts who said they would not have recommended four of those highways at the time.
“There are people that work in ministries that spend a lot of time and are experts in what they do and they make recommendations as best they do and they hope that they're heard because theirs is based on engineering experience,” she said at a press conference.
“Governments can make any decision governments want to make. I think we acknowledge and we recognize that, but what we're pointing out in the report is that there were recommendations for a different sequence in the builds of highways in Ontario and unfortunately, there was an override of those decisions.”
A spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said that while some projects may have been “deferred,” they were all subsequently approved for completion, except a few that “remain on the table for completion in the future.
“The Ministry of Transportation was clear in discussions with the auditor general that all the projects she identifies in her report as `deferred' are in fact moving ahead, either through construction, planning or due diligence work,” Dakota Brasier wrote in a statement.
The auditor general also found the ministry did not have a tolling strategy when the province removed fees from Highway 412 and Highway 418 before those costs could be recovered.
Ford announced the removal of those tolls in April, a month before the election.
“Our audit concluded that the Ministry did not consistently plan and prioritize highway projects effectively, based on provincial infrastructure needs,” Lysyk said in her annual report.
“We found that, at the direction of the minister, the ministry recommended deferring highly-ranked highway expansion projects in favour of lower-ranked projects, without communicating to Treasury Board ... that the ministry's subject-matter experts did not agree with the direction from the Minister's office.”
Lysyk also found that the business case for removing licence plate stickers, which the province announced in February, wasn't provided to the Treasury Board on a timely basis and did not have enough information to make a decision.
She found the ministry also provided inadequate information to the Treasury Board on its decision to remove the tolls.
“We found that these business cases did not meet board guidelines and requirements to support effective decision-making,” Lysyk said.
“Additionally, we noted that the ministry did not provide a rationale in its business case for why it sought approval to expedite the removal of tolls by April 5, 2022, which was less than two months before the provincial election.”
The Bradford Bypass is currently undergoing an environmental review and is estimated to cost between $2 and $4 billion, while Highway 413 in the Toronto area is estimated to cost more than $4 billion.
The ministry responded in the report that it “has robust processes and systems in place that use sound asset management principles to plan, prioritize, maintain, repair, and renew provincial highways.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.