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End of the Road

Outgoing Ontario Road Builders’ Association president provides perspective on the roadbuilding indu

June 15, 2012  By Rob Bradford

It has been a pleasure to pen the odd column for Aggregates & Roadbuilding Magazine over the years

It has been a pleasure to pen the odd column for Aggregates & Roadbuilding Magazine over the years, though this is likely the last one, as I will be moving on from my position at the Ontario Road Builders’ Association (ORBA) in June.

As a journalist by education, I am afforded the tremendous opportunity to spend the next year researching and writing a history of the roadbuilding industry in Ontario – a special project being undertaken by ORBA and funded by contributions from its members. I will be touring the province interviewing the people who built the industry, ensuring that their stories and experiences are recorded for posterity. We will be looking at the people and the companies and the development of products, materials and equipment through the decades, and I would be pleased to receive whatever historical documents, recollections and information that readers might have.

As this is the last piece I will be writing in this space, the intention had been to offer a final summary here of the incredible change the industry has experienced in the 35-plus years I have been involved with it. It was to be a tip of the hat to the Ministry of Transportation for expertly grooming the contracting sector to prepare it for what is to come. It was going to look at how MTO has brought the industry through quality control plans that were only meant to be a temporary measure to develop quality systems in the industry. It has been quite a transformation from method specs to performance specs, from balanced risk to greater contractor risk and liability, and from traditional bid-build delivery models to area maintenance contracts, design-build and new layers of contractor prequalification.


But now is not the time to look back. For roadbuilders and civil contractors in general there is no time for retrospection because what is coming will make the change that contractors have navigated since 1995 look like a project that actually delivered a 10-per-cent mark-up. So, as a final word in this space, here is a quick look at the brave new world for infrastructure contractors.

Projects will continue to become bigger.  Bundling of work under a general infrastructure label will increase.

Government’s ability to fund civil infrastructure will make AFPs, PPPs, and whatever the current jargon happens to be, the default funding options. The size and scope of work will become such that international competition will increase, and unless Ontario and Canadian governments act to level playing fields a lot of general contractors are going to become captive subcontractors.

In order to compete, Ontario contractors will have to continue to grow in size and sophistication.  Consolidation will continue to eat up the smaller and medium-sized contractors, and mergers of even the big players will be necessary to meet the challenge of competing with international companies that dwarf the current Canadian leaders.

The traditional idea of a contractor being a company that knows how to build a road or a bridge, or install a watermain, will evolve as companies doing the work will begin to morph with the design, engineering and financing disciplines. The really big players in the future will be able to design, build, finance, operate and/or maintain a major transit terminal and passenger stations as well as construct and maintain the roads and structures that are part of the system.  Smaller contractors will eventually have to find ways to play in the new game. They will either move to the already crowded municipal sector or become subcontractors to the big generals if they are not able to find new partnerships and ways to compete on a larger scale.

The industry has approached this in a protective manner, focusing on preserving traditional markets and ways of doing business, especially for the smaller companies. That does not work. It never has and it never will. Contractors are worried about competing in the evolving market but the evolution will continue.  Although there are significant challenges ahead, as always the contractors who win in the future will be those who do not protect the past but embrace the change and seek opportunity in it. 

One More Load is a new column that gives people the opportunity to discuss issues affecting the rock to road industry.

If you are interested in submitting a story for One More Load, please contact associate editor Andrew Macklin at Aggregates & Roadbuilding reserves the right to determine the suitability of all content.

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