Time to look at transport resilience

In News, Road Transport Forum6 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineJuly 23, 2021

Another week, another major weather event, a new lot of significant State Highway road damage and communities cut off as a result.

This time, the top of the South Island and parts of the West Coast got hammered by rainfall that closed mountain passes, roads connecting West Coast towns, Blenheim to Nelson, and Picton to anywhere. We’ve seen the clean-up in will take months and many dollars.

We are concerned there won’t be enough money in the kitty to fix these blocked and damaged roads while roading money is being poured into rail and siphoned off to accommodate the minority road users – cyclists and pedestrians.

I’ve been up in Northland this week, seeing for myself the appalling state of their State Highway network. As one local operator told me, “there is just no room for error” on these narrow roads with the now all too familiar cracked and pitted surfaces.

We know that substandard road building has taken its toll, but so has maintenance underfunding, and nowhere is that more evident than in the northern tip of our country. Everywhere I looked, I saw the now familiar rutting and cracking, along with those smooth surfaces that appear when you know a road surface is degrading. Coming past Ōkaihau, heading north on SH1, I was appalled how such a long piece of road could be allowed to be in such a poor condition.

Lots of people want to attack Waka Kotahi, but I suspect they are as frustrated as we are. They don’t want to let roading quality decline further, as they are responsible professionals.

We have to direct our voices and concern where it will be most effective, and where it belongs – that’s with the politicians. While the Government has helpfully increased road maintenance funding, in real terms we are still falling behind because costs have increased faster than the money has. Our roads are going to continue to decay until Waka Kotahi gets the funding they need. Of course, we know that the more the assets degrade, the more they cost to bring up to the standard we require of them. RTF is continuing to stand up to ensure money taken off those of you who pay road user charges, is spent where it should be.

The Government has a view that if it upgrades rail lines that were allowed to fall into decline because they simply weren’t a cost effective way to move people or freight, they won’t need to spend so much on roads, because less freight and cars will be travelling that way and it will miraculously all convert to rail.

New Zealand’s surface freight travels over approximately 3,700km of rail track and some 11,000km of State Highway road network. Given the extent of roads and the other benefits provided (door-to-door delivery, efficiency, etc), 93% of New Zealand’s freight is moved by road.

A fundamental flaw in the present approach to transport infrastructure policy is a misplaced ideological position that rail freight is a competent competitor to road freight, instead of being seen as a complementary service. This position is based on an irrational assumption that rail can flourish without road transport support. In reality, it is the opposite. Only six percent of freight is contestable by rail and it is unlikely that will increase by too many percentage points.

There are some basic infrastructure needs that must be met for our economy to remain competitive and that must include high performing roads for a long time to come.

The reality is that roads connect those places politicians and city-dwelling policy writers seem to conveniently forget about – the South Island and hinterland New Zealand. Yet these areas are where a lot of New Zealand’s wealth comes from.

We don’t want roads to get run down to the point the rail lines were because the fact is, roads are more important to the economy, connectivity, and individual New Zealanders than rail will ever be. If roads are allowed to deteriorate much more, the cost of bringing them back to a safe standard could be many billions of dollars.

Instead of trying to socially engineer people’s behaviour without clear evidence of any kind of benefits, the Government would be better to focus on the resilience of the transport network in a small, trading nation with a high natural disaster risk profile.

By Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum