Private Sector Blasts Province’s Foray into Paving Business

Road builders in the province are steaming over the Nova Scotia government’s foray into the paving business. “Private industry can do roadwork cheaper, faster and better,” said Ron Dunn, a project manager with S.W. Weeks Construction Ltd. in New Glasgow. “This will take work away from the private sector and, inevitably, jobs will be lost.”

Dunn, also president of the Nova Scotia Road Builders Association, said the province’s chip-sealing work this summer showed that government road crews are less efficient than industry. The process of laying a mixture of stone chips and liquid asphalt was delayed by training and wet weather and only a small stretch of roadwork was done.

Tom Hickey, president of Frontline Asphalt, said he is confident the government will continue to do a “bad enough job” that it will “fail in the paving business.”

“The good news is in five years there will be a cheap asphalt plant for one of us to buy,” he said, referring to the $3.6-million mobile asphalt plant the province scooped up from a Florida company this week. “The bad thing is now we’ve got to compete for labour with the government, which offers good pensions. We stand to lose workers, or worse, be driven out of business.”

Matthew Presti, owner of Prestige Paving Inc., said competition is fierce in the paving industry. “Before it was pretty well two big companies,” he said, pointing to Dexter Construction and Ocean Contractors Ltd. “But there are more players in the industry now and business is pretty cutthroat. People are hungry for work.”

Contracts for driveways and private parking lots will continue to fuel smaller paving firms, Presti said. But he said some larger companies that rely on public work for a large chunk of their business could be hit hard.

Kevin Lacey, Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the government has embarked on a tax-wasting exercise. “Our province is running a huge deficit, we have the highest taxes in all of Canada and cuts are being made to our health-care system. Surely the government has better things to do with taxpayers’ money than gamble millions on this project.”

Lacey said the government doesn’t have to be in the road-paving and chip-sealing business to get competitive prices. “They control the tenders, timing and whether any work is awarded.” Grant Feltmate, executive director of the road builders association, said the government could get better bids if it changes its approach to tendering. “If they bundle together smaller bits of work into a larger tender, they’d get lower bids. The government complains that they don’t get a good price in remote locations of the province, but if you bundled work together, it makes it much more viable for industry.”

Bill Estabrooks, the minister of transportation and infrastructure renewal, said this week the government’s paving work should end up saving taxpayers money. He said uncompetitive bidding in some parts of the province has led to high prices for asphalt.

“It’s going to be put in situations where there’s a need for more competitive bidding, and of course there’s a need also to make sure that roads in that particular community are brought up to spec.”

An analysis of 2008 and 2009 tenders his department released in March showed there were often three or fewer bids on paving projects in Annapolis, Digby, Guysborough, Inverness, Kings, Queens, Richmond, Shelburne, Victoria and Yarmouth counties.