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Bulletin N°50 de Mars 2009

Editorial version anglaise

Public Works and infrastructures: a June encounter

The funds are flowing, in both Ottawa and Québec City. Infrastructures have become the object of sustained attention. It would be ungrateful of us to complain. But we must not forget that it took years to convince society that infrastructures need to be maintained if they are to last.

An extremely topical symposium

All these new highway projects being announced, for billions of dollars each, create new obligations that must be fulfilled. Will the governments spend all these billions in society’s best interest? This sudden windfall requires some serious thought, and the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec has put its collective mind to it, to the extent of making it the main theme of its annual Symposium, to be held in Sherbrooke this coming June 11 and 12. We will consider this issue in depth and then offer the conclusions to those who govern us.

Enough professional resources?

After remaining very low for years, because of the lack of jobs, the number of civil engineering graduates is finally growing again. But these newcomers need supervision, at a time when many older engineers are getting ready to retire. The transfer of knowledge between old and new civil engineers is an issue that requires all of our attention and cannot be avoided. The same issues arise in industry, which must grow rapidly to be able to execute these new projects and integrate new technologies.
The other industrialized countries are dealing with the same problem of deteriorating infrastructures, and this creates more opportunities abroad. For example, the new Administration in the United States will also use rebuilding infra­structures as a tool to rebuild employment and create jobs in the years to come.
Moreover, besides the Ministère des Transports, there are some 1,115 municipalities, not forgetting the main players in the field of energy, health and social services, also planning billions of dollars of investments and public works. All these clients must work together and schedule their activities, taking into account the resources and limits of the industry and potentially extending certain less critical investments over time.

The OIQ: an important stakeholder

Until an infrastructure shows obvious signs of wear, few people pay much attention to it. Well before the Johnson Commission, the OIQ had studied the problem of infrastructure management. In our report to the Commission, our recommendations included pointing out that maintenance plans should be established by the owners and managers of infrastructures, to avoid repeating the errors of the past. We must free maintenance from the effects of political and economic cycles. That is why the OIQ recommends the implementation of integrated, long-term maintenance plans by all owners and managers of infrastructures, including the municipalities, public agencies and the Ministère des Transports. Maintenance and an on-going renewal of the enormous and ageing set of infrastructures installed in Québec municipalities are highly recommended, in order to reduce the total cost of their lifecycle as much as possible and ensure their long-term survival. Such a plan implies periodic reporting as part of a ten-year investment plan, managed by a public agency. This institution would track all the repairs undertaken on each of the infrastructures, in order to guarantee the traceability of the actions taken.

Public interest and responsibility

It is obvious that good infrastructure management requires thinking long term. Changing the culture is indispensable but it takes time and political will. It is vital that we start right now, and the OIQ is doing its part. Once the economy improves, it would be easy to forget infrastructure maintenance and move onto other activities. We must make sure that this money is invested in a sustainable and responsible way, in the best interest of the public.
It is thus no coincidence that the 2009 OIQ Symposium, which is devoted to the professional development of engineers, will highlight this current topic: public works and infrastructures. I suggest that in Sherbrooke this June, we think hard about this crucial issue for future, to which the engineers of Québec hold some keys.

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Zaki Ghavitian, Eng.

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