Niagara Tunnel Project: Power at All Costs
The ‘politics of power’ is an age-old conundrum where controlling people and capital often becomes more important than actually managing that power to produce the original and intended results. Take ‘public works projects’ as a fine example of how more energy can go into bickering, back-room deals, and bloated bureaucracy than into just getting the job done. The ambitious Niagara Tunnel Project here in Ontario isn’t just a remarkable feat of engineering, it’s also a fine example of how politicians and bureaucrats are able to kick a ball around for as long as they want, because they know that the public purse will get stuck with the bill for any overtime costs.
All of which begs the question; how can the public truly demand more accountability from it’s public servants and politicians, or has this type of wrangling simply become an accepted feature in our over-financed plans to try and build a sustainable future?
If we consider just how much energy gets wasted in process and procedures, and how much capital gets siphoned off into padded margins and under-scrutinized overruns, we can start to see scenarios where short-term benefits can actually hurt long-term outcomes. The answer to our public accountability question could be a defining force in whether that future actually gets built or not.
Some externalities exist just because they can
No matter how good an initial idea is, it still seems almost impossible to navigate a project to completion without having to satisfy a whole range of other considerations that seem to piggy-back on every big issue and drag down the average for everyone. The Niagara Power Tunnel project is the latest example of how more energy can go into just the processes of maintaining bureaucratic controls, and posturing for public relations efforts, than in actually directing energy into just getting the job done.
650M over budget and 5 yers behind schedule
“It’s not the first time there’s been a tunnel dug in the Niagara region, and certainly I think the geological makeup of the route should have probably have been much better understood before that contract was signed,” said Progressive Conservative energy critic John Yakabuski. “We supported the project and thought it was a good idea to increase the amount of hydro (electricity) from Niagara Falls, but unfortunately the government’s mismanagement of it has turned it into somewhat of a boondoggle.”
Those cost overruns will be added directly to already rising electricity bills for consumers, warned Yakabuski.
OPG President Tom Mitchell called the tunnel a “tremendous achievement” from which future generations of Ontarians stand to benefit considerably. he proudly states that “This new Niagara tunnel has been excavated with no fatalities, no serious injuries and no major accidents.”
In his own comments, Strabag CEO Hans Peter Haselsteiner (the contracted Austrian tunneling company) singled out “the entirely Canadian workforce” for praise in handling the challenges.
“You did a really impressive job when you produced 20 to 30 metres per day, but you really did a much more impressive job when you produced half a meter or one meter a day,” he said. “When I watched you work under these conditions I was speechless. It was unbelievable how you handled this project at its technical limits.”
According to Energy Minister Brad Duguid, at its (currently projected) final cost of $1.6 billion the project still represents good value for money.
“It (the project) had to be re-profiled early on in the project, (mainly) for worker safety, so it did end up costing more than expected, but it’s still very good value for money,” Duguid told The Canadian Press.
Many news sources described the cost over-runs as being the result of “running into harder rock than expected” early on, yet provided absolutely no detail on what this claim entails.
Look to locals for a more accurate account
Corey Larocque of The Niagara Falls Review offers a much more thorough account of the setbacks which describes an entirely opposite scenario, where the softer shale created conditions where loose rock in the St. Davids gorge, the area between Bridge Street and the Beck stations, made for slow going in tunnel’s first three kilometers.
When The Review contacted Strabag’s project manager Ernst Gschnitzer to talk about what his company learned in the Niagara Tunnel Project’s first three years, he wanted OPG officials to do the talking.
“I have to refer you to the OPG media desk. We agreed OPG has the first say,” Gschnitzer said. “I have nothing more to add. Things are going well.”
Measure Twice…Cut Once
Conservative energy critic John Yakabuski accused the government of approving the tunnel project without knowing the rock conditions.
“A fair question is, with all of the technology that exists today why didn’t they have a better understanding of the geology they were facing? Poor planning makes for poor results,” said Yakabuski, the MPP for Renfrew- Nipissing-Pembroke, a northern Ontario riding whose rivers are responsible for a lot of hydroelectricity.
“They rushed the Niagara Tunnel Project to prove how progressive they were on the energy front”, Yakabuski said.
“There’s an old saying in carpentry, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’ It seems these guys were too eager to get cutting to satisfy their own political agenda,” he said.
Accurate information about the geology might have led to a different company with a better price winning the contract, Yakabuski suggested.
“The additional costs are going to be borne by the electricity consumer because of what I see as bad planning on behalf of this government,” he said.
Which brings us back to the original question. How can Public Works projects be held more accountable to the public that pays for them? Often for generations to come!