Is enough being done to maintain regional roads

We’ve had a critical look at the condition of the State’s highway network in regional Victoria. Is there adequate funding for road maintenance and restoration?

In 2013, RACV’s Pothole Patrol campaign drew statewide attention to the problem, resulting in the once-off allocation of $170 million of emergency funding from the State Government. We now know that it wasn’t enough to be a long term fix. This year, in September’s RoyalAuto, RACV President and Chairman of the Board, Mr Kevin White, wrote;

Over winter, the condition of the State’s roads has gone from bad to worse…RACV expects the State Government to restore the State’s highways and to put in place a plan to ensure their restored condition is maintained long-term.

Since then the State and Federal Government’s have (again) allocated some funding that, if spent this summer, will fix some problems. I spoke to 3AW’s Neil Mitchell following a funding announcement by the Federal Government about funding for roads and railways across Victoria.

Geoff Webb inspecting cracked and rutted surface of Princes Highway

Independent assessment of Victoria’s country roads

RACV commissioned an expert on road maintenance to provide an independent assessment of the State’s highways by reviewing publicly available data and to inspect some of the worst roads. The expert, Mr Geoff Webb, considered State budget papers, VicRoads annual reports, a 2008 Auditor General’s report and ten years of road condition data collected by VicRoads. Mr Webb met with representatives of Glenelg Shire, Corangamite Shire and South Gippsland Shire, and inspected some of the problem roads.

The assessment found that the actual expenditure on capital works to rehabilitate and maintain the State’s road network peaked in 2009/10 and has declined by over 40% since that time. In the same period the value of the State’s road assets has grown by about 10% – probably from projects like Peninsula Link, regional highway duplications and other road upgrades. The decline in spending on rehabilitation and maintenance, despite a bigger network, might be explained in part by new contracting methods delivering efficiencies, but overall, significantly less is being spent on road maintenance and rehabilitation.


The independent assessment also considered how much of the network is being resurfaced each year. Resurfacing is important because it delivers benefits to the network like:

  • maintaining waterproofing. Water is a major problem in road maintenance because wet road materials cannot support the weight of cars and trucks. That is why so much effort should go into keeping road surfaces waterproof by applying new surfaces, sealing cracks, filling potholes and maintaining drains so that water flows away from the road.
  • road safety. New surfaces typically have better skid resistance, reducing the likelihood of vehicles skidding or sliding off roads on bends, and enabling vehicles to stop in a shorter distance in an emergency.
  • fixing the shape of the road. Some ways of resurfacing roads enable deformities in the surface to be corrected. For example, to stop water pooling on the road surface.


Condition of the road network

The condition of the network is reported in State Budget papers each May. In 2008 the Victorian Auditor General reported that the State’s regional arterial road network was under stress, maintenance expenditure was not keeping pace with inflation, and that the condition and performance of the regional road infrastructure had deteriorated. Road condition has been reported in the State Budget papers as the proportion of travel on ‘smooth roads’ (2007/08 to 2010/11), and the percentage of the road network exhibiting cracked and/or ‘distressed’ pavement (from 2011/12). The calculation of distressed pavement is not explained, so we combined the two separate ways of reporting on the basis that we think one is the inverse of the other.

Proportion of 'smooth' roads in urban and rural areas, 2007/08 to 2010/16. Data from 2011/12 derived from State budget papers.

  2007-08 2008-09 2009-10 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
Metropolitan % 91 91 91 91 92. 92.4 92.6
92.5 91.9
Regional % 93 93 93 93 92.5 92.6 92 92.5 92.6


Do you think the network has been in the same condition for nine years? We don’t. The numbers in the tables are averages for the metropolitan and regional areas. There’s no indication of the best and worst, and we think the ‘key performance indicator’ (KPI) in the budget papers and annual reports is hiding the real problem. For example, long lengths of much needed highway duplications involve building new road surfaces. They are probably balancing out the fact that some highways are in extremely poor condition. The network is also growing in size, and the relatively constant percentage hides that the number of kilometres in a distressed condition is higher each year.

In 2015/16, the distressed 7.4% of the 19,630 kilometre network in regional Victoria was equivalent to 1,452 kilometres of road. That is the same distance as driving from Melbourne to Mildura 2.6 times.

To delve deeper, the expert assessment considered ten years of VicRoads data. The VicRoads condition data records cracking, surface texture, roughness and rutting. When roughness data for all roads in regional Victoria is considered, outside of the ten largest regional cities, we find that the network is gradually declining in condition.

Roughness of Victorian regional highways


The data for each VicRoads region (find your region with this interactive ArcView map) shows significant differences. Using roughness data, it appears that the Western Region has the roughest roads, followed by the Eastern Region.

Roughness of Victoria's highways in each VicRoads region 2014/15


The roughness of roads in every VicRoads country region has been progressively worsening since 2006/07 (higher scores are worse).

Change in roughness of Victoria's regional highways


Using rutting data gives quite different results. Rutting is the long depression in the wheel path of vehicles along the road. According to this measure, the south-west of Victoria is significantly worse than the rest of the State, but Statewide the trend has ‘flattened’ or decreased a little in most regions.

Rutting of Victoria's highways in each VicRoads region 2014/15
Change in rutting of Victoria's regional highways


Rutted roads can hold water in the wheel path, creating a safety issue as well as accelerating the failure of the road pavement because water cannot drain from the road surface. It is a greater safety and maintenance concern in wet climates – like that in South-West Victoria.

Corangamite Shire has reported that VicRoads data for their area shows that 18% of the highways within their community are distressed. We don’t know what it is in each Council area, but if we assume that the average across the South-West is 15% then about 600 kilometres of roads, just in the South-West, are in what the State Government calls a distressed condition.

How much to strengthen and resurface the worst roads?

To strengthen and resurface regional roads costs about $80-$90 per square metre. With roads typically being about nine metres wide, including narrow sealed shoulders, 600 kilometres of distressed roads will cost about $486 million to repair. That means that over one term of government, RACV estimates that about $120 million a year will be needed to fix distressed roads in South-West Victoria alone.

If there are about 1,500 kilometres of distressed roads across regional Victoria, as we estimated above, then $1.2 billion is needed to strengthen and resurface them. That will be $304 million a year, for four years – and it won’t slow down the deterioration of other roads.

Such large scale works must also incorporate extra safety improvements, to provide minimum 3-star roads. That should be possible because large scale works should enable the work to be undertaken at a lower cost per square metre of road to be fixed.

Conclusion

Our assessment found that despite eight years elapsing since the Auditor General identified shortcomings in the funding for road maintenance in Victoria, successive Governments have not addressed the issue. The condition of the network is not transparently reported and therefore there can be no informed community debate about what Victorians want and how much they will be prepared to pay for their roads.

The data assessed for RACV shows a continuing decline in the condition of roads, with the extremely poor condition of roads in some areas of the State hidden in the data by good roads elsewhere, including much needed new and upgraded roads. Data suggests that in some areas, roads are at least twice as bad as what is reported in annual State budget papers.

RACV wants greater transparency about the condition of Victoria’s roads, and how much is being spent. We also want more funding to give Victorians the roads they expect, and to ensure the roads remain that way.

What would you like to see to ensure the condition of Victoria’s roads is clear to everyone? Do you think regional highways are sufficiently funded?

Find out more

Check out our other posts about road maintenance in Victoria.

Written by Dave Jones, Roads and Traffic Manager
December 07, 2016