By Julian Bajkowski
The Abbott government is wasting no time in pushing its roads-led infrastructure renewal policy to the nation’s councils, after Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, Warren Truss, pledged $300 million to replace decaying small bridges.
In a speech pitched squarely at regional councils and the road freight industry, the Nationals’ leader told the Australian Local Government Association’s 2013 National Local Roads and Transport Congress in Alice Springs that “some councils have been unable to afford the maintenance and upgrades necessary to keep [small] bridges open.”
The $300 million for the upgrades is being made available by Canberra under the Bridges Renewal Programme, with matching funding from state and local governments set to boost the total pool to $600 million.
“Apart from moving freight, bridges are key economic assets that connect local communities to the broader road network and get people to work and school,” Mr Truss said.
An increase in the volume of road freight and gross vehicle masses has long been an issue for regional councils because of the wear and tear they extract on ageing infrastructure that was often engineered before the proliferation of heavier vehicles.
Australia’s local governments on Wednesday released their National State of the Assets Report through ALGA. The study estimated that $1.4 billion worth of bridges are now “in poor to very poor condition”.
ALGA President Felicity-ann Lewis welcomed the government’s funding commitment, saying that the bridges “linked communities” and provided “the infrastructure for a stronger economy.”
Conversely, many smaller towns become isolated and suffer economically unless the bridges are maintained.
“Bridges literally bring communities together and yet so many of our regional communities are struggling because of the challenge of maintaining tens of thousands of older bridges,” Ms Lewis said.
However deteriorating bridges are not the only hot potato in the Infrastructure and Regional Development Minister’s portfolio. Mr Truss also sought to soothe recent tensions over the Regional Development Australia Fund (RDAF) which Labor had planned to fund through the soon to be axed Minerals Resource Rent Tax.
The Deputy Prime Minister assured delegates “that funding will continue to be delivered” for “RDAF projects already under contract” but pulled up short of clarifying what would become of planned projects where a deal had not yet been inked.
“The Government is currently considering arrangements for RDAF projects without a contract in place prior to the election,” Mr Truss said.
Mr Truss also emphasised the government’s ongoing commitment to the Roads to Recovery program that Canberra has used to channel money directly to local governments since its creation under the Howard government in 2001.
“We will ensure this highly successful and much-needed programme is adequately funded into the future, even with the current budgetary difficulties before the federal government,” Mr Truss said.
He added that the scheme had funded 44,571 projects through almost $4.5 billion in money from Canberra that helped maintain more than 650,000km of local roads.
However much of the Roads to Recovery funding could be legally jeopardised if another High Court challenge to the validity of direct federal funding for local government projects is successful.
Previous litigant Ronald Williams is understood to be preparing a fresh case to challenge the Constitutionality of direct funding, a scenario that the new government will eventually have to deal with one way or another.
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