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TILMA Gums up Public Works Bidding, Say BC Engineers

Flood of cross-border bids creates headaches for both engineering consultants and city staffs.

By Adam Pez 11 May 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Adam Pez is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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TILMA trade deal was signed by then BC premier Gordon Campbell and then Alberta premier Ralph Klein on Apr. 28, 2006.

An Alberta-B.C. free trade agreement is prompting local governments to take short-cuts on selecting bids for city projects, say members of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies of B.C. (ACEC-BC).

The B.C. engineers are another group that's come to the table to express concern about the Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) signed by B.C. and Alberta in 2007. The agreement was supposed to expand inter-provincial trade in goods and labour, and increase competition. But it's also led to a flood of public project bids for local governments, creating headaches for both engineering consultants and city staff. The result will be poorer roads, buildings, sewers and other public infrastructure, which will cost taxpayers money, said Zane Sloan, a consultancy engineer speaking on behalf of the Association of Engineers of BC.

"Where you might have had a competition for four companies, you might have 16 or 20 companies for one project now," said Sloan.

He added municipalities lack the money to set up a registry for projects, unlike the provincial government. The result, he said, is that engineers have to file multiple proposals -- which can cost around $5,000 -- just for a chance to get work. Meanwhile, many municipalities are opting to go with cheaper bids -- filed online with BC Bids -- just to streamline the influx of applications, Sloan added.

"We're a professional service, and knowledge is what we're selling. If you're seeking the lowest price, you're buying the cheapest knowledge," said Sloan.

Sorting through piles

TILMA has already had an impact on Metro Vancouver. During 2012 sewer separation proposals for New Westminster, city staff took three weeks to sort through the applications, said Angus English, vice president and district leader for AECOM Canada.

English said some members of New Westminster city staff let him know the burden of thoroughly reviewing all the proposals they received was "killing" them and as a result they were "trying to find ways to restrict or shortlist."

English said the city eventually went for the lowest consultancy bid of $85,000.

TILMA burdens were predicted

TILMA has been a source of controversy since its introduction in early 2007. Critics have long said the pact would put more strain on local government during bid selection and would restricted the ability to implement green policies that B.C. communities want.

In 2007, Vancouver City Council passed a motion calling for more municipal consultation over the agreement's design, joining 20 other provincial jurisdiction expressing concern over the pact.

Since 2007, TILMA has been expanded. In 2010, it grew into the New West Partnership Trade Agreement (NWPTA), which included Saskatchewan into the pact. NWPTA members are currently in discussions with Manitoba to see whether the province will enter the agreement too.

The B.C. Trade Initiatives Bureau -- which manages B.C.'s end of TILMA -- did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.  [Tyee]

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