Roads crumble in funding drought

By Paul Hemsley

The condition of roads across Australia is deteriorating because state and local governments see little immediate electoral upside in spending money on vital tasks like fixing potholes – at least compared to more noticeable projects like new building works.

That’s the conclusion of new analysis on infrastructure upkeep across Australia by BIS Shrapnel, which notes that government spending on essential utilities such as roads and transport has dwindled badly.

According to the economic and industrial research house’s Maintenance in Australia 2012 to 2027 report, infrastructure maintenance grew to $35 billion from 2011 to 2012, an amount that fails to keep pace with the increase of public infrastructure over the last decade.

BIS Shrapnel senior manager, Adrian Hart said roads were not a “hot sector” and that governments believed building projects were more politically advantageous than showing proof of strong levels of road maintenance over longer periods of time.

A historical challenge with road maintenance is that is many road users travel through electorates where they do not vote. The funding dilemma is further compounded by the question of who should pay for increased road wear-and-tear from heavy vehicles.

One area of road funding area that does receive conspicuous attention are known blackspots that produce fatalities.

On Friday the Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu announced that the intersection of the Calder Highway and Calder Alternate Highway in Ravenswood would get a $310,000 safety upgrade this year under the $55 million Safer Roads Infrastructure Program (SRIP), one of a number of state government initiatives trying to reduce road trauma and injury.

Despite such attention being given to reducing accidents, Mr Hart said that governments generally don’t take the initiative on longer-term maintenance because people remained relatively content to drive on imperfect roads.

“We’re prepared to live on slightly aged roads,” Mr Hart said.

According to Mr Hart, maintenance isn’t on the radar but most people notice it when they hit a pothole and wish that the roads were better maintained.

“Most of the time, we’re stuck in gridlock so much, we don’t notice the potholes.

“We usually want more infrastructure, but [are] not necessarily thinking about how is this all going to be maintained in the long run,” Mr Hart said.

As a solution to the maintenance shortfall for roads, Mr Hart suggested that governments create a road pricing scheme to better engage the regulatory process and raise revenue based on how much investment they make.

According to Mr Hart, governments could commit to certain levels of road maintenance and investment and receive revenue for it.

However the creation of road pricing scheme would be a difficult ask given public scepticism and the existing battle for public authorities to win adequate funding from their Treasuries to maintain assets.

Mr Hart said agencies responsible for roads were already fighting to maintain funding allocated to them for construction and maintenance.

“If they don’t receive what they want, they have to look at what else they could do just to keep the roads in operation – such as lowering speed limits [or] closing roads in a last case scenario,” he said.

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