Quebec has learned nothing from Laval metro


January 13, 2005 Thursday
The Charest government's handling of the new hospital for the Centre hospitalier de l'Universite de Montreal is so hapless that I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I want to laugh because the government's performance is so amateurish. I want to weep because it's my tax dollars that are in jeopardy.
A government so tight-fisted that it will give only $125,000 for tsunami relief is leaving itself wide open to squandering hundreds of millions of dollars.
For perspective, consider the local mega-project that is currently under way - the metro extension to Laval. Originally estimated at $179 million, its latest price tag is $809 million. Yet instead of trying to learn from that brainchild of the former Parti Quebecois government, the Liberals seem poised to repeat a core mistake.
The PQ government permitted the same private consortium that carried out the feasibility study for the metro extension also to bid - successfully, as it turned out - on the subsequent contract to manage construction.
Allowing the same business interests to wear these two hats - that is, to participate in both the conceptualizing and building of projects - is imprudent in the extreme. If a company that helps evaluate and plan a project knows it has a chance to help construct it, there is a natural temptation to produce an extravagant (and thus more profitable) concept and to underestimate the cost to the client.
That's why some governments in other jurisdictions have adopted a firewall rule that prohibits planning consultants from bidding for construction contracts. Indeed, Quebec's auditor-general rapped the PQ government for failing to apply such a rule to the metro work.
Yet the Liberals are walking in the Pequistes' footsteps. They haven't erected a firewall for the hospital, a project that will be even more expensive to taxpayers than the metro extension.
I bet you're wondering whether the corporate interests involved in the Laval debacle are present in the CHUM project.
They are.
SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. is the leader of the six-member consortium in the Laval project. It's also prominently involved in doing studies for the CHUM scheme.
I'm not suggesting the company is misbehaving. Its role is to make as much profit as it legally can for its owners, and it appears to be doing so adroitly. The fault, rather, lies with the government for giving the company such a clear field (a laxity that, incidentally, inspires little confidence in Quebec's imminent plunge into the potentially perilous waters of public-private partnerships).
Not only would the Charest government allow SNC-Lavalin to bid for CHUM's building contract, it has also handed a third hat to that company's entourage: Premier Jean Charest last week asked two VIPs to identify which vision of the CHUM project is best, and both individuals are former SNC-Lavalin officials.
Indeed, one of them, Guy Saint-Pierre, was SNC-Lavalin's chairperson when Quebec awarded the Laval metro contracts to the consortium.
It would take the objectivity of a scientist to fairly weigh the pros and cons of the two CHUM projects. The costs, for example, go far beyond the expense of bricks and mortar, and estimating these costs will be particularly dicey. The CHUM project in Outremont, for example, would require operating longer and more frequent trains on the metro's blue line, moving the Blainville rail line's tracks and - something that would affect quality of life - enlarging nearby residential streets. Bias could easily distort calculations in favour of one proposal.
Yet possible bias toward one of the proposals is already an issue. As I revealed Tuesday, a consortium that includes SNC-Lavalin has already produced a report that explicitly endorses the Outremont concept. That is an additional reason - as if another were needed - to disqualify Saint-Pierre and his colleague.
One of the main purposes of the new CHUM hospital is to spur bio-medical research. The idea, as Mayor Gerald Tremblay puts it, is to raise Montreal's international profile as a "knowledge city." The trouble is, it's hard to reach an intelligent goal by such sadly unenlightened means.
Henry Aubin is The Gazette's regional-affairs columnist.

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