It was the best of times; it was the worst of times: How has COVID-19 impacted road construction projects across Ontario?

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Ontario Construction News staff writer

The opening sentence of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities may be the best way to sum up how COVID-19 has impacted road construction projects across Ontario.

“I’m optimistic about the future, but there is a lot of uncertainty, that’s for sure,” said Scott Butler, manager of policy and research at the Ontario Good Roads Association. “I believe there will be lasting changes from the pandemic … but people’s desire to go back to the old normal is going to be pretty strong.”

Municipal road construction projects are still permitted to continue during the province’s emergency declaration if the local road authority determines that a project is deemed critical. As a result of the directive, many municipalities across Ontario have announced plans to proceed with essential construction work this spring.

In some cases, including the $17 redevelopment project of Dunlop Street in Barrie are proceeding ahead of schedule. With people staying at home more, traffic volumes are way down in many towns and cities.

“For years we have looked for ways to mitigate the impact of road closures and now that this has happened the reduction in traffic is unprecedented,” Butler said. “It has made this an opportune time for many large projects to go ahead, but these are complicated decisions and there is often a lot of fine tuning and planning involved.”

However, there are also challenges that contractors and municipal planners have never seen before. Crews must adapt to physical distancing regulations – a new hurdle for jobsites and the planning process.

For example, municipalities scheduling reconstruction projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars need to find new ways to engage the public when environmental assessments are required.

Also, the recent closure of 15 Post Media newspapers will make it more challenging for some communities to advertise public meetings – as required by the province.

The Municipal Engineers Association hosted a free webinar in April entitled:  Effective MCEA Consultation during COVID-19, to sort out issues and share ideas about “the new normal” for municipal planning.  Over 400 people registered for the webinar.

“There is a different set of expectations on the municipality,” Butler said, adding that many innovative practices that were just ideas in the past have been pushed into reality by COVID-19.

“One example of the new way of doing things is holding public meetings virtually,” he said. “What we have seen so far is a patchwork of responses to the challenges, depending on the municipality. Some have been deferring tenders, thinking they will see how things look three weeks or four weeks from now.”

While he doesn’t believe that the current situation is “the new normal” for Ontario, Butler says some of the changes will stay in place long after the pandemic is over – and the COVID-19 response may be a catalyst for “climate response”. If he’s right, communities may look for ways to expand open spaces to make physical distancing easier in urban settings.

“There may be a more accelerated push to have more space dedicated to pedestrians and to cyclists . . . wider sidewalks and bike lanes,” he said, calling the COVID-19 response “a test run for our climate response.”

“While I believe the sentiment that everything has changed for good is overstated, the industry may be looking at a somewhat new norm that combines some of our pre-COVID expectations with our post-COVID expectations.”

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