Truckers, the AA and other business lobby groups are calling on the government to put more money into road maintenance, and I agree with them. It also makes a nice difference from normal of them continually calling for expensive new highways.
By some measures the country’s highways are deteriorating, prompting a call from driver lobbyists for the government to urgently tap into Covid-19 funds.
Bone-weary John Hickman of Taranaki is backing the billion-dollar call to make highways better.
“Maintenance bills [are] going through the roof year on year,” the veteran operator said.
His business, JD Hickman, keeps 85 trucks on the road but when he recently stumbled over a bundle of tie-rod ends, which can wear out due to constant use on bumpy roads, in the workshop, he thought, “Hell, I didn’t realise how bad it was getting”.
“It’s just the roughness of the ride – the potholes, the digouts,” Hickman said. “You create a judder bar at every repair if you like.
“Just affects all the steering joints, tears the shock absorbers off our trailers – you’ve got to see it to believe it.
“And of course the customers’ goods in the back get a good milkshake … so it’s not good for them either.”
The Transport Agency defends its record, saying it has been exceeding its performance targets for road conditions.
It did a record amount of maintenance last year and had left no money earmarked for maintenance since 2018 unspent, it said, adding, however, that an expanding road network and more traffic mean there must be trade-offs, plus storms have hit roads hard recently.
The agency had improved its way of contracting out repairs seven years ago and this ensured “that the right work is done in the right place, and at the right time”.
It told the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) that before this change to Network Outcomes Contracts, it was in fact over-investing “by renewing state highways too early”.
The OAG concluded both that the agency’s spending was “well targeted”, but that it also had undershot the rate of highway depreciation for a decade.
The Road Transport Forum representing truckers prefers to point to other figures. Its own survey shows a 55 percent rise in truckers’ maintenance costs nationwide in five years while a national pavement survey by NZTA showed road rutting worsening in that time by up to a third and the rate of seal failure doubling.
“We have seen an increase in allocated funds in the last couple of years,” AA spokesperson Mike Noon said.
“But it doesn’t offset the huge underinvestment over the past decade.
Talk of a playing catch up on decade long underinvestment in maintenance is what Transport Minister Phil Twyford is saying too. At the same time, National are promising a bunch more funding to pay for maintenance.
National Party transport spokesman Chris Bishop promised his party would inject $150m per year for two years ($300m) into the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) for road maintenance on top of an already announced proposal from the Government to increase funding by 17 percent.
To me there are two key aspects on the issues here.
Politicians blaming issues on their predecessors is clearly nothing new but that the AA are saying it is notable. It’s also easily noticeable to see when it happened based on this data from the NZTA. This is just the spending on State Highways – the current version online only goes back to 2009/10 but I had an older version back to 2003/04.
Just eyeballing it, had the level of funding for maintenance continued on the trend it was on before 2009/10, it would have meant possibly about 1.2 billion more being spent on maintenance.
Within the figures above, money specifically for pavements and seal maintenance approximately halved from about $260 million in 2009/10 to $130 million in 2015/16
Of course this has occurred at a time of record spending on transport in NZ. The money that should have gone for maintenance was sucked away to help pay for the Roads of National Significance.
So yes, we do need more funding and it should certainly come in advance of a handful of big new motorway projects.
The other thing that happened about a decade ago is the government allowed for much bigger trucks on our roads and as a general rule, bigger trucks also mean more damage to roads.
A Road Transport Forum analysis of NZTA figures, highlighted the “unparalleled increases” in heavy vehicles on the roads.
Since 2010, the maximum truck size has increased from 44 tonnes to about 63 tonnes under special permits.
“The level of adoption by commercial heavy vehicle owners exceeded forecasts rendering initial predictions of impact as obsolete,” the analysis said.
Most of the truck growth had been since 2014, which the analysis said was illustrated by the number of heavy vehicle kilometres travelled rising from 1.6 billion to 2.5b in 2020, a 56 percent increase.
The size of trucks was increased in 2010, having been trialled the year before . This change was sold by then Transport Minister Stephen Joyce as reducing truck movements.
It would also mean fewer trucks on the road which would ease congestion and frustration, Mr Joyce said.
“In fact, there will be a decrease in total emissions with a reduction in the number of vehicle movements.”
Of course, just like induced demand with cars, making it easier to move stuff by truck encouraged more more truck trips. In fact at the time, one of the predicted sources of this was to take it from rail.
KiwiRail expects to lose 15 per cent of its freight revenue to road carriers, although the ministry says other transport operators predict greater opportunities for transfers from rail to heavier trucks carrying bulk goods such as milk.
Of note, the tonnage of dairy being transported on the rail network has dropped from about 3.9 million tonnes at the end of 2012 to 2.3 million tonnes at the beginning of this year, more than a 40% drop.
While the focus of the groups calling for more maintenance seems to be for more state highways but these heavier trucks travel on local roads too. Those extra maintenance costs fall on ratepayers too and back in 2010 the ministry said:
The ministry says local authorities will receive 50 per cent of the cost of extra wear and tear as Government subsidies, leaving ratepayers “who benefit from the regional stimulus and economic and community benefits” to meet the rest.
I can’t help but think that one of the reasons the roads are so ‘dilapidated’ is because of the extra damage caused by the same truckers now demanding the roads be fixed.