Monday, April 19, 2021

“Some of the practices we’ve been getting away with over the last 20 or 30 years we’re not getting away with now…”

Peter Connors, central South Island system manager at the New Zealand Transport Agency, was plainly nervous when he took to the podium at the recent NTA summit. What he was about to share with delegates would confirm the agency’s budgetary constraints, lack of maintenance undertakings, and expected obstacles to future activities. His presentation came as the NZTA put forward its investment proposal “for a state highway maintenance programme that targets sustainable delivery of safe and reliable access on state highways”, as the 2021/24 National Land Transport Programme (NLTP) undergoes development. The NLTP will be adopted in mid-2021, and the NZTA’s proposal responds to the service-level expectations of the state highway network, current load and forecast demands, and the trends in the network’s condition.

In brief, explained Connors, the investment proposal reflects significant investments funded other than through the NLTP, being transparent about the potential impact of all transport activities. It also proposes projects to be considered by Regional Transport Committees and then for the NLTP, which:
• Augment investment through the New Zealand Upgrade Programme to deliver a greater benefit by, for example, extending the HOV lanes towards the Tauranga CBD.
• Deliver on the speed management and infrastructure components of the Road to Zero programme for state highways.
• Reflect the state highway contribution to the ATAP and Let’s Get Wellington Moving programmes.
• Continue a programme of low-cost low-risk activities across New Zealand that addresses localised issues.

With this setting the background, Connors delved into the nitty-gritty of state highway maintenance, budgets and expenditure, and affordability. Between 2003 and 2009, maintenance expenditure increased at about 6% per annum but, in response to recommendations by the road management task force, the government held expenditure at a constant rate between 2009 and 2017. It did this by constraining growth in the funding range for state highway maintenance in the government policy statement (GPS). “We developed what we called the one network road classification, where the investment was deliberately targeted to the higher volume roads. So, it does mean that on some lower-classified roads, we see deterioration,” said Connors. A further impact on the national network came with the Covid-19 lockdown when the NZTA could not undertake its usual heavy maintenance work. However, the renewal programme has been able to ramp up, and Connors took the opportunity to thank the industry for its patience, especially considering the increased temporary traffic management measures at worksites. “It’s hugely inconvenient for you, and there’s just been an acceptance from the industry which has just made our job a lot easier,” he said.

Quality down, budgets stretched
The quality of maintenance work has also taken a hit, conceded Connors, but the agency is conscious of doing better. “We’re going to introduce independent monitoring; an Australian quality system which we hope will improve some of the outcomes, particularly in the maintenance space.” While maintenance spend has been increasing, emergency works in the four or five years following the Kaikoura earthquake has had a significant effect on budgetary constraints – about a billion dollars in expenditure, said Connors. “While there’s Crown funding for some emergency work, most of it outside that is not [Crownfunded]. And with climate change, a lot of structures we used to build have suffered particularly with coastal erosion – and that is now three or four times the cost of the work we usually do. It’s not going to go away, and that’s going to be a pressing demand on budgets going forward.” Then Connors quoted NZTA CEO Nicole Rosie on some numbers.

Following the challenges brought about by Covid-19, investment in the NLTP for 2021-24 across Crown funding, local share and the NLTF is expected to increase from $18.5 billion (2018-21) to more than $20.8 billion. However, quoted Connors, more than 90% of the anticipated revenue from the NLTF for 2021-24 will be required to meet existing commitments to projects underway, and the continuous programmes to maintain existing levels of service. “The biggest restraint we face through the NLTF currently is in new improvement projects.” Connors added that revenue through the NLTF is expected to reduce during 2021-24 from pre-Covid-19 levels due to the pandemic’s ongoing impact. The final impact will depend on the recovery of the economy and is yet to be seen. “Lockdown reduced NLTF revenue by $325 million and it increased land transport costs by several hundred million,” he noted.

100,000km takes some maintenance
Worse still, it seems as though the agency cannot meet all commitments in the next funding period. “The NLTF cannot afford to fund activities in any activity class above the lower limit. We expect combined commitments in three activity classes (public transport services, local road maintenance and state highway maintenance) for 2021-24 to exceed the lower limits by more than $500 million. Without additional funding above the lower limit, there will be particular issues for state highway maintenance and public transport services, both of which require funding above the minimum range that the forecast allows.” The GPS directs where expenditure goes across a range of activities. “We are working hard to make sure our needs in the maintenance space [are met]. We need that money, we need to do more renewals,” said Connors.

He then admitted: “Some of the practices we’ve been getting away with over the last 20 or 30 years we’re not getting away with now…” Of the 100 000km roading network a large proportion is flexible pavement, chip seal that requires significant maintenance. “We are finding in places that flexible pavement is not working and so we’re getting onto more structural type renewals, which are extremely expensive – probably three or four times the cost. But there are areas where we just have to bite the bullet and do those treatments, because the standard treatment that we’ve put up with is not lasting. That is another challenge for us,” Connors said.

Upgrades and safety
In closing, Connors touched on the Road to Zero programme and the agency’s role in upgrading road infrastructure to reduce crashes, deaths and serious injuries. “There is some deserved criticism of our role. But it’s not easy when we start putting medians down the middle of the road over long necks of the network. “It’s easy to do a greenfields new job, but it’s a lot harder to treat a section of road, there’s a lot of opposition to it.”

However, said Connors, the success of median barriers, such as the one on Wellington’s Centennial Highway, one of the first to be installed and to admittedly low standards, is stark compared with areas where these are not present. “One of the biggest disruptors, I believe, in the rural network particularly, is closing roads for accidents. If we can treat a lot of roads to stop that, I believe it’ll be a game-changer in terms of efficiency,” he said. With 352 road deaths in 2019, the social cost totalled $1.54 billion. Connors said that 82% of people die on roads that have a medium or high infrastructure risk rating; 73% die in rural areas. About 50% of deaths (177) occurred on state highways. Vehicles hitting roadside objects accounted for 182 deaths, head-on collisions 114. Sixty-seven people died in crashes involving a truck, 10 more than those involving a motorcycle. Regarding speed, 72% died on roads with limits set higher than the safe and appropriate speed for that road. “We believe that 100kph is not a safe speed on a lot of our roads. Some 55% of deaths occurred on roads in the top 10% requiring speed management,” Connors said.