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Pan Am Games offer a stress test for Ontario’s overburdened roads

Barry Steinberg is CEO of the Consulting Engineers of Ontario, which represents the interests of 200 engineering firms.

You've probably already seen the signs if you enter or leave the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area by highway.

And if you're caught in the stop-and-go grind of morning or evening rush hour, you have plenty of time to read them: pre-emptive reminders and warnings urging you to consider public transit during the upcoming Pan Am and Parapan Games to help reduce the expected gridlock.

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The Pan Am Games, to be held at venues across the GTA and Southern Ontario from July 10 to July 26, should provide a great celebration of competitive sport and a welcome boost to Ontario's economy. At the same time, they'll also provide a stress test for the region's overburdened transit and transportation systems. The heavy traffic forecast for the two weeks of the Games will give us a glimpse into the future and show us what we could be in for if we don't prepare adequately with improved transit and transportation infrastructure to match our growing population.

The Games will draw more than 10,000 athletes and officials, 250,000 tourists and more than 4,000 members of the media to dozens of venues in 15 host municipalities across the Golden Horseshoe.

Ontario's Ministry of Transportation has projected that traffic related to the Games could add up to 20 minutes in travel time to the average commute during afternoon rush hour on Toronto-area highways, such as the Gardiner Expressway.

The province is investing more than $61-million to ease congestion and manage traffic during the Games. The plan will include 235 kilometres of temporary high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, expanded transit services and other measures aimed at curbing traffic by up to 20 per cent to absorb the increase generated by the Games.

The government's effort to head off problems before they develop is admirable. But it must also be noted that this is one-time funding designed for exceptional circumstances – it won't permanently address existing issues with transportation infrastructure that is already over capacity.

As such, the Games give us a unique opportunity to look down the road 10 or 20 years and get a sense of the squeeze Ontario's growing population will put on its roads, highways and transit systems.

Ontario's population is projected to grow 31.3 per cent – more than 4.2 million people – by 2041 to almost 17.8 million, according to the latest projections from Ministry of Finance.

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What needs to be done to make sure the province's transportation infrastructure keeps up and isn't completely jammed, further eroding quality of life and damaging our competitiveness as a province?

Ontario's recent budget made a $130-billion commitment to improve infrastructure over the next 10 years. This is a significant and much-needed investment. But funding is only part of the solution. Ontarians also need to improve how they go about building things.

Generally, the way engineering services are procured now for infrastructure projects in Ontario and much of Canada puts a great deal of weight on whoever submits the lowest bid.

However, there is a different approach, called qualifications-based selection, which enables those planning large public infrastructure projects to choose engineering firms based on the merit of their qualifications – their expertise, proven experience and professionalism – rather than by just who is willing to sell their services at the lowest price.

QBS is used widely in the United States. Under this model, engineering firms have the creative freedom to present to their clients what they believe to be the most effective and innovative design solution. This comes from the client and the consultant jointly developing a well-defined project scope of work. Together, they define the realities of the project and commit to a partnership based on determining the greatest potential value. Even before a contract is signed, they are aligned in a collective vision for the completed project.

This vision has very tangible results. While this process determines cost-effective technical services, equalling approximately 1.5 per cent of the lifecycle cost of the project, they are just the start. Where a well-defined scope of work delivers greatest value for clients is its ability to significantly lower construction costs, which range from 6 to 18 per cent of the project life cycle. This is especially significant given our current economic realities.

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In addition to new approaches to procurement, Ontario needs to take much better stock of where transportation networks need to be expanded or upgraded. Municipal asset planning is vital for future prosperity. These plans enable municipalities to track and manage not just what sort of infrastructure they have, but also its precise location, age, condition and remaining life expectancy – all essential variables in effectively planning and managing the cost of maintaining and replacing these assets, which foster continued civic growth and development.

Successfully meeting Ontario's infrastructure needs will only happen as a result of sound planning supported by consistent investment from dedicated revenue streams, not on a project-to-project basis.

Let's see how things play out on Ontario's roads when the Pan Am Games come to town. It should give us a good idea of what awaits if the province doesn't get ahead of it.

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