City botches street-sweeping contract, leaving Toronto’s roads facing dirtier spring

Torontonians will be dealing with dirtier roads this spring after the city awarded a street-sweeping contract to a private company that didn’t have the vehicles to complete the work, CBC News has learned.

Two sources with knowledge of the deal say Rafat General Contractor Inc. won the lucrative contract to clean streets across the city as well as the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway. Documents show the company bid $339,000 in total, winning the right to clean up all four lots of the city by offering a rate nearly $100,000 less than rival companies.

The problem: Rafat didn’t have the 12 machines needed to get the work done, the sources say. The clean-up work the company was supposed to do was slated to run throughout April, but never started.

Now, the city will have to use its own fleet of sweepers to do the work, but crews will have to make up at least a month’s worth of work and it’s unclear when that will happen — particularly on the two major highways, where the work is only supposed to take place overnight. 

What’s more, the city only has 30 new street sweepers, down from 50 a decade ago, to get that work done.

Street sweeping is important work for Toronto’s environment. This reporter recently picked up several bags of trash including discarded COVID masks, coffee cups, cigarette butts and a surprising amount of broken plastic on just one small west-end street (you could probably do the same wherever you are in the city).

One common sight in the city’s gutters: discarded face masks. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

But it’s not just the obvious litter. The city itself says sweeping its 5,500 kilometres worth of roadway is important for maintaining good air quality and preventing flooding. And the longer waste sits on the streets, the more likely it is to wash into Lake Ontario or other waterways.

City officials aren’t denying the bungled contract, which was not disclosed to councillors until CBC Toronto’s reporting. But they also refused to answer key questions about this story, including:

  • How the city plans to get the sweeping work done and how many of its 30 vehicles are available for use right now.
  • Whether or not it was aware Rafat had the vehicles needed to complete the work, or if those vehicles were ever inspected (the city tender says officials have that option).
  • Whether any money has been paid to the company, or if the city will pursue any punishment. 

Instead, Vincent Sferrazza, the director of maintenance with the city’s transportation services division, issued an email statement saying only: “City staff remain committed to satisfying the approved service levels for street sweeping on all city roadways.”

Sferrazza later pointed to a news release listing all of the city’s spring cleaning efforts, which began on April 6. However, he again declined to answer specific questions about the deal with Rafat or what this might mean for the city’s environment.

The same news release states: “The city saw an increase in the amount of litter in Toronto’s public spaces last year.”

Councillor told city now taking ‘all hands on deck’ approach

Scarborough Coun. Jennifer McKelvie, who heads the city’s infrastructure and environment committee, said she’s sought answers from staff and been told the work will get done.

“City staff have assured me that they’ve got ‘all hands on deck’ to ensure that street sweeping service levels are met with existing resources,” McKelvie said in an email statement.

However, it remains to be seen whether that’s possible. In 2019, staff admitted they were missing sweeping targets on local roads due to fleet maintenance issues.

“The City of Toronto is taking steps to improve our street sweeping program,” McKelvie added.

CBC Toronto has also reported on the latest consultation work regarding sweeping, which also raised questions at city hall.

Pandemic leading to more litter, frustration

Emily Alfred, of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, said she’s concerned about the state of the spring clean-up and others will likely feel the same.

The city says it has seen an increase in the amount of litter in public spaces. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

What you can’t see is the particulate matter on streets, like brake dust, that gets kicked up into the atmosphere and lowers air quality, or washed into the sewer system by rainfall, Alfred said. Litter, on the other hand, is building up right in front of people who are being forced to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re all on edge,” Alfred said, and with people relying so heavily on public space right now, “seeing it dirty can be really frustrating.”

Her question for the city: Why isn’t there a stronger plan in place to handle spring street-sweeping than relying on a private company?

Private company facing stiff penalty, but city won’t say what’s next

Rafat, meanwhile, did not respond to multiple calls or emails about this story.

The company should be cleaning at least 240 kilometres of roadway per day right now, according to the terms of the city tender. That document also notes failure to complete that work will result in fines of $100 per kilometre.

However, it’s unclear if the city will pursue that punishment. If it did, Rafat could be facing a penalty worth upwards of $100,000.

The city has not issued a second bid to do the cleaning work.

john.rieti@cbc.ca

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