Roads & Bridges
Roads & Paving
A conversation with Ontario Minister of Transportation Hon. Caroline Mulroney
By Jay Koblun
By Jay Koblun
Ontario Minister of Transportation Hon. Caroline Mulroney shared a candid, unrehearsed, conversation with author, journalist and producer Steve Paikin about the crucial role Ontario’s transportation infrastructure plays in the economic success of the country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The session took place during the Ontario Road Builders’ Association’s (ORBA) 94th annual convention that was held virtually for the first time in February. The event was titled, “Forging the Roadway Ahead.”
Mulroney was first elected as a member of the provincial parliament for York/Simcoe in 2018. In June 2019, she was appointed Minister of Transportation where she says her top priority is focusing on getting people where they want to go safely and when they need to get there.
Before the questions started, Paikin, from the attic of his home, gave Mulroney a few moments to make introductory remarks.
“I miss people and I’m missing interacting with constituents and stakeholders,” she told Paikin and the more than 500 event attendees. “Last year I was able to mingle and meet with ORBA members. I’m glad to have an opportunity to still meet online and speak about issues that matter to the province and ORBA.”
COVID-19 and the industry
When asked if the road construction industry in this province needs government assistance during the COVID period, Mulroney said yes, it does.
“COVID brought along challenges completely new to government. And as the minister of transportation, one of the things that I did early on in this pandemic was start meeting regularly with stakeholders across the transportation sector. And I began regularly meeting with ORBA and some of its members to understand what the challenges that they were facing as a result of the pandemic are, and what kind of measures and support government should be implementing or providing,” she said. Adding that those regular meetings were and continue to be very helpful to provide the kind of support the industry needs.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in this industry, as all industries, about how the pandemic has and will continue to affect businesses. But those meetings have helped, and have identified policy responses that the industry requested and identified as essential to their ability to cope with the pandemic.”
Mulroney said that one of the issues that ORBA identified early on is including language in contracts that addresses the possibility of another pandemic. “So, we are working closely with ORBA to try and develop that kind of response.”
In regards to COVID-19, Paikin commented that while not having heard the road building criticized for it, that other industries have been noted having unsafe or unclean workplaces.
“I’m talking about unsafe workplaces, unclean conditions, overflowing port-a-potties. People and workers not necessarily wearing masks properly, or at all. Do you think there is adequate provincial oversight to keep construction sites safe right now?” asked Paikin.
“I know we are working very hard to provide the kind of guidance that’s necessary, and then the oversight,” said Mulroney. Adding that the province recently announced more oversight and the Ministry of Labour is ensuring more inspectors are going out regularly to worksite across the province.
“This is a completely new world for all of us. The Ministry of Labour developed guidelines for all these different industries, including the construction industry. And the purpose of those guidelines is to keep workers safe while they’re at work. And construction never stops. Construction was deemed essential in phase 1 and continues to be. As such an important industry in our economy, we wanted to make sure that construction continued, and so those guidelines needed to be developed very quickly and then implemented very quickly by businesses.
“That was a very challenging thing to do. And I know that from the regular conversations we were having with ORBA, that was one of the topics that we covered on a regular basis—the information that they were getting from the Ministry of Labour—and then how businesses were actually implementing them.”
Mulroney said part of the process was making sure that workplaces were clean, that workers had adequate PPE, that sanitation devices we available and accessible, policies like making sure workers could work in bubbles were implemented, and other things that were done right at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We were so impressed to see how quickly and how well transportation and construction implemented them [the new policies] and they’ve done a very good job,” she said.
“ORBA has done a very good job keeping workers safe across the province at construction sites.”
State of the industry
Paikin asked Mulroney if she was currently addressing concerns in the industry surrounding the ongoing tendering of contracts related to providing winter maintenance operations. Before responding Mulroney took a moment to acknowledge and thank the work that winter maintenance contractors do.
“It is a very difficult job. They work in the harshest conditions and have the greatest expectations from the public to get our roads cleared quickly and well. It’s a difficult job and they do it very well. I want to say ‘thank you’ to our winter maintenance contractors for the work that they do.
“Over the past year, we have adapted to the COVID 19 environment. And I’m pleased to say the Ministry has awarded four new maintenance contracts this year. So, taking everything into consideration we do plan to move forward with the tendering and awarding of maintenance contracts during this time.”
Mulroney said she knows that there are risks and impacts, but believes there is a greater risk if the awarding of contracts is postponed.
“It’s important to remember that they do provide contractors up to 12 months to get all of their resources and equipment in place from the time of the contract award. It’s very important we move forward with winter maintenance operations so we can keep our highways safe during the winter months.”
Paikin asked Mulroney for a status update on the $28.5 billion worth of public transit announcements as they relate to the Greater Toronto area.
“The Ontario relief line. LRT extensions, Yonge subway extensions up to York region, Scarborough subways, what’s the status of all of that?” he asked.
Mulroney said they are still moving forward with the ambitious plan for subway extension in the GTA.
“$28.5 billion dollars, for one new line, and the extension of three existing lines, Scarborough, Eglington, and Yonge North. There was a transit infrastructure deficit in the GTA before the pandemic and there still is one. We need to compensate for that and we need to build for the future,” said Mulroney.
“We achieved a historic partnership with the city of Toronto and York region on those projects, so they’re important and they are critical for the economic growth for this region.”
Mulroney said she is aware ridership has come down since the pandemic hit but considers public transit a part of the future.
“We know public transit is part of the future. And as the GTA continues to welcome more and more people we want to make sure we are building the kind of region that people deserve.”
Paikin mentioned that transit ridership is down 80 per cent if not more in some places and there is no guarantee that it will bounce back entirely.
“People may be nervous going forward,” he said. “I bet some people watching this are saying why don’t you give us a chunk of that $28.5 billion and just put all that on the back burner right now because we don’t know whether transit ridership is going to come back.”
Mulroney responded by saying she is confident ridership will come back.
“You are right, ridership has gone down significantly as a result of the pandemic. But also, we’ve issued a stay at home order and asked people to work from home. So, the ridership has come down as a result of that. But I’m confident that ridership will come back. We are rolling out our vaccine across Ontario and as more and more people get vaccinated, and more and more of us resume our everyday activities and hopefully return to normal, public transit will be part of it.
“It’s part of an overall strategy to reduce emissions, Ontarians are very concerned about making sure they do so. It’s also about taking care of the road and improving your quality of life so I know that our plan is the right one for Ontario and the region.
“The building of these subways will generate a lot of construction jobs and in the future will connect people to more employment and more opportunity. So, I’m glad we’ve been able to continue with the delivery of our plan. And looking forward to more people riding the subway in the future.”
New 400-series highway in Ontario
A new 400-series highway has been in talks for a few years now and Paikin asked Mulroney what her plans were for the project. Mulroney said yes there are plans in motion.
“As I mentioned, Ontario’s population will surge in the next few decades and most of that will happen in the GTA. By 2031, the GTA population is expected to rise by 2.6 million people. Which means that almost 7.5 million people are going to be calling this region home. And by 2046 that number is going to climb to almost 10 million.
“You mentioned a new 400-series highway and we have a vision for moving forward with that. We’ve released a preferred route for a new 400-series highway and transit corridor across York and Peel and Halton region. We believe advancing that corridor will reduce travel times for drivers and will support economic growth in the region.”
The minister of transportation said they have heard a lot from local governments and municipalities in those areas who want the highway built, and included in the release of the preferred route is the third round of public consultations that will be held in the near future.
“That will be an opportunity for us at MTO to receive feedback on that route on the preliminary design on the preferred route,” she said.
Unity during the pandemic
Paikin drew the conversation to a close by asking Mulroney how much more difficult it has been for her to do her job during the pandemic.
“This is not an easy time to be a politician. You guys just lost a finance minister, and there’s a lot of anger in the air about people trying to deal with this COVID-19 coronavirus. And social media is a pretty ugly place for a lot of politicians. Particularly if I may say for female politicians. And I just wonder how much more difficult your job is today than it was at this time last year?”
Mulroney said she did not expect to be developing policies during a pandemic but is learning to adapt just like everyone else.
“Certainly, the landscape of everyone’s work has changed significantly. We’ve all had to adapt to it. I have had the chance since the beginning of this pandemic in my regular meetings with stakeholders, to really understand the challenges that Ontarians are facing.
“My job, while I never expected to be part of a government that would be developing policies during the pandemic, my job is to do that. My job is to hear about those challenges, and try to develop the policies, the right policies to help Ontarians get through it. So, while it is difficult and challenging, I consider it to be an honour and I hope that Ontarians who have done such a great job in getting through the first wave of the pandemic will continue to do that so we can emerge from this as quickly as possible and get back to normal.”