Reducing speed limits no substitute for road maintenance

In Road Transport Forum, November 20206 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineDecember 24, 2020

The problem is, rather than investing in improving road surfaces, the government continually chooses to take the cheap option and simply imposes greater speed reductions.

The Road Transport Forum and its associations have long been concerned with the state of New Zealand‘s road surfaces and the impact this is having on safety for those in our industry. I have, over the past few months, made a real effort to highlight the issue and even invited media to come with me, Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst, deputy mayor Tania Kerr, and local truck driver Antony Alexander, to take a look at the condition of State Highway 5 Napier to Taupo. What we saw was a complete mess. The road surface is a patchwork of potholes and patches and in places there is so much loose chip and gravel that it moves under your feet as you walk on it. The side of the road also leaves a lot to be desired. For heavy vehicles the result of dropping a wheel over the white line isn‘t really worth thinking about, while very few run-off areas and steep shoulder gradients provide little margin for error. It is unsurprising that over the last year or so eight people have died on this stretch of road. The problem is, rather than investing in improving road surfaces, the government continually chooses to take the cheap option and simply imposes greater speed reductions. Just recently the NZ Transport Agency reduced speed limits on SH1 from Taupo Airport to Turangi.

Unfortunately, reducing speeds inevitably increases costs, especially for the freight sector. Those costs ultimately need to be passed on down through the economy, and with trucks transporting 93% of New Zealand‘s total freight, the economic impact is likely to be significant. A journey increased by an hour might not be a big deal to private motorists, but to the transport industry it can substantially alter the freight task. The longer it takes for trucks to get somewhere, the more expensive the journey becomes, the more drivers you need or the more overnight halts are required, and the harder it hits the pockets of New Zealand businesses and consumers. In some places speed limit changes may be necessary and the transport industry can accept that. But wholesale reductions in speed limits are not a viable long-term substitute for road maintenance and certainly do not come without consequences for our economy. On another infrastructure-related issue, I was pretty disturbed to see some people in the media seek to blame the driver whose truck was blown onto a load-bearing strut on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. While I can understand the frustration with the disruption caused by the incident, there is no suggestion that the driver had any control over what happened. The reality is that the driver actually deserves public sympathy for what must have been an extremely scary experience, and we should be grateful that he and other motorists weren‘t seriously injured.

I do, however, believe it is important that as a country we take lessons from the incident and the weeks of disruptions it has caused to Auckland‘s already congested transport system. I don‘t consider it acceptable that our largest city, and contributor of nearly 40% of our GDP, was effectively split in half by a gust of wind. I have gone on the public record stating that I believe the impact of the incident, the ongoing lane closures and the economic disruption they have caused, deserve a formal inquiry. A first-world, 21st century city should have far better infrastructure resilience, and when your geography includes a harbour that cuts right across the city, that means it is critical to have a second crossing point. A second harbour crossing has been mooted for years, yet disputes over what form it should take, what transport infrastructure it should include and how much should be invested, have meant the whole concept has, up until now, been put in the too hard basket. The ongoing closure of lanes on the Auckland Harbour Bridge will inevitably cost the economy tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. In reality, however, the lack of an alternative crossing results in an economic loss to our country every day. Even when the bridge is running at full capacity commuter congestion results in a major productivity loss and slower freight movements. It is important that we learn our lessons from the bridge debacle and use it as motivation to invest in the infrastructure that will improve Auckland‘s resilience and increase our nation‘s productivity. A second harbour crossing should be back on the table. The longer we delay, the more it‘s going to cost us.