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Seizing Solitude: The public-private problem

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are all the rage these days in Quebec City. Under the auspices of the Quebec Infrastructures Plan launched last Fall, the current Liberal government seeks what it calls “intergenerational equity” by providing today for the the needs of future generations. The ambitious $30-billion plan concerns all of Quebec’s built structures such as roads, hospitals and schools.

There is no question that our decaying infrastructures have suffered from years of poor maintenance, and that the rigours of a continental climate require the utmost care and constant monitoring. The collapse of an overpass in Laval a year and a half ago – although later blamed on faulty construction and poor oversight – served as a wake-up call for both law-makers and engineers.

The Infrastructures Plan does confirm a paradigm shift when it comes to building and maintaining public infrastructures in the province. The assumption is that such partnerships will respect budgets and cut delivery times. While the Liberals have never hidden their profound affection for PPPs, this plan sets in motion a program that may well be unstoppable.

Last week, the government faced a defection from its own civil servants concerning one such public-private infrastructure project. The professional association of government engineers voiced its support toward a coalition of environmental groups opposed to the construction of a new bridge spanning the Rivière des Prairies in the east-end of Montréal. The association also made a $10,000 donation to the coalition to help finance legal procedures that could bring the entire project to a halt.

An item on the Infrastructure Plan shopping list, the extension of Autoroute 25 is one of many public-private partnerships cherished by the provincial government. On a 35-year lease, the bridge would be built and operated by a private consortium which would instate tolls to cover its operations. Notwithstanding the fact that more bridges only lead to more congestion, the government engineers suggest that using the public-private method would actually cost 26 per cent more than if the Ministry of Transportation was managing the project. They also question claims that private firms could cut delivery times in half, and warn the government against unfair labour practices and cost-cutting measures that may affect the overall quality of the work.

At the same time, the City of Montreal is asking the provincial government for the right to charge drivers crossing any of the island’s bridges in order to quell suburban sprawl and help finance public transport initiatives. Citizens would benefit much more from a universal access fee onto the Island of Montreal, rather than a private toll on only one of the its bridges. In fact, a traffic study submitted to the government suggests that “as soon as Autoroute 25 is tolled, commuters will choose alternative routes and therefore increase congestion on those axes.”

We can all agree that owning a good is better than renting it. This especially applies when you expect to keep the good for a long time, like you would a bridge. Except that under a PPP, the government becomes a tenant to a private company, and must pay rent for a certain number of years. The first couple of years might cover the private company’s construction costs. After that, it’s all private profit, because the company also usually charges user fees, as in the case of Autoroute 25.

Cynics rightfully point out that such partnerships allow the government to bypass its fiscal obligations, since it no longer has to include public-private infrastructure in the calculation of the province’s debt. Citizens are nonetheless obliged to pay twice: first when they use the service, and indirectly when filing their income taxes. With all this in mind, it becomes clear that public-private partnerships favour businesses first and foremost. In fact, the government fails in its duty of protection towards the citizen by becoming a cash-coveting middleman between taxpayers and private enterprise.

Alexandre de Lorimier is Chair of the Daily Publications Society Board of Directors. You may reach him at