State of rural roads a risk to safety and industry

Truck drives a long a water logged road

Rural businesses have had it with the state of country roads in Victoria, with large stretches of arterial roads – the responsibility of VicRoads – still rated as poor or distressed.

In the worst cases, that means tourists have been known to drive into a deep pothole and have a wheel ripped off their cars. At an everyday level, truck operators in the western agricultural, dairy and forestry industries are forced into expensive maintenance outlays when their trucks are still relatively new.

‘A risk to public safety’

An Auditor-General’s report released today backs their concerns, concluding that the increasing proportion of the state road network in a very poor condition is a growing risk to public safety.

It found that not enough funding is allocated to sustain the road network, and included VicRoads modelling showing that at present funding levels, 50 per cent of the network will be in very poor condition within seven years.

While some extra money has been allocated this year, businesses in rural areas remain frustrated at the deterioration in the key roads needed by industries to get their goods to market.

The trouble has been brewing for some time, as demonstrated by an independent assessment commissioned by the RACV late last year.

Road-building and maintenance veteran Geoff Webb assessed the data on the condition of Victoria’s roads compiled by VicRoads and also examined the recent history of rural road funding in Victorian budgets.

Successive failure

“Our assessment found that despite eight years elapsing since the Auditor General FIRST identified shortcomings in the funding for road maintenance in Victoria (in 2008), successive governments have not addressed the issue,” Mr Webb concludes.

It is a frustrating and complex battle for Corangamite Shire, according to Mayor Jo Beard. Despite the fact that VicRoads is aware of the condition of arterial roads in the shire, she says the State Government has not increased road funding allocations to help restore road quality.

‘Continually overlooked’

“It’s a fact that our area has continually been overlooked,” she says. “There were some announcements recently in the State Budget and people claimed it was new money. It wasn’t new money.”

What is frustrating for the mayor is that voters do not understand where the shire’s responsibility for road maintenance ends and VicRoads’ responsibility starts.

“We do regular community satisfaction surveys and we get rated low in regards to our road network.

“But when we ask them to name the roads they are concerned about, they are all arterial roads that the State Government is responsible for,” councillor Beard says.

The council estimates that $55 million of work is needed to address current problems, and that does not include the ongoing maintenance required.

The councillor has done her own research.

‘Our truck drivers have to dodge potholes’

“I recently rode in a milk tanker to see what our drivers have to do on our roads. They are very defensive drivers (but) they are having to dodge potholes and they are having to go across double lines, all because of the state of the roads.”

The council has been warned that speed limits may be reduced in a bid to curb the crash rate.

“Is it driver fatigue, drugs and alcohol, or is it actually the road surface? Reducing speed limits is just taking a Band-Aid approach. That won’t actually fix the problem.”

‘No plan for a safe network’

RACV’s manager roads and traffic Dave Jones says: “There is no plan we are aware of that will deliver Victorians the safe network we need for cars, bikes and heavier trucks. The poorly maintained network is falling to pieces carrying the traffic it should be designed for.”

Things are improving in the Glenelg Shire around Portland, Victoria’ second busiest port, but there are still issues. It’s a real hurdle for a region that creates 10 per cent of Victoria’s total gross domestic product.

The Green Triangle Freight Action Plan and the Glenelg Shire recently succeeded in obtaining $10 million extra from the Victorian Government to address some of the worst potholes in the area, and federal member (for Wannon) and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Dan Tehan secured $40 million in federal funds, a sum that was matched by the State Government.

‘We need $180 million’

“That made $90 million, but we need $180 million,” says Glenelg councillor Karen Stephens, “and given this very wet winter, that will be $200 million in two years.”

However, important work has been done on parts of the Portland Ring Road, a crucial part of the road network around the port.

‘In a terrible state’

“The roads did deteriorate to a terrible state,” says Brian Williamson, managing director of fleet operator Porthaul, “but in the last six months the State Government has allocated quite a considerable sum for road repair in our region.”

It was not before time for Porthaul. The company had been spending an extra $100,000 or more a year on repairing damage to its 60 trucks caused by the poor roads around Portland.

“They’re half-million-dollar rigs and we were spending money on them while they were still fairly new, repairing parts that should not be breaking: spring hangers, king pins.

“It really was bad,” Mr Williamson says. “We get to see lots of different roads. There is still a lot of money to be spent and a lot of work to be done to bring the roads up to where they should be. That pretty much applies around country Victoria.”

VicRoads Chief Executive John Merritt acknowledged the Auditor General's report findings and recommendations, which he says VicRoads is already putting in place.

"With a doubling of the country road maintenance budget, we are out there widening every major road into Melbourne along with a huge volume of work underway to improve safety conditions and widen narrow sealed roads. There are maintenance works happening right across the state, and we are flat out working to fix the problems."

WHAT YOU SAY

Before a parliamentary inquiry into the state of Victoria’s rural roads, RACV commissioned Nature Research to ascertain the views of rural Victorians on the condition of rural roads.

69% are dissatisfied with road surface conditions.

64% believe rural roads are not adequately funded.

55% say poor surfaces and potholes are the top reason roads are more dangerous to drive on.

29% say more frequent road maintenance would have the most impact on safety.

17% believe duplication would have the most impact on safety.

14% say sealed shoulders would have the most impact on safety.

12% say overtaking lanes would have the most impact on safety.

Source: Nature Research for RACV. 750 rural Victorians were surveyed on the condition of country roads.

HAVE YOUR SAY

VicRoads wants feedback on the state of rural roads.
VISIT: engage.vicroads.vic.gov.au

Tell the parliamentary inquiry your views.
VISIT: parliament.vic.gov.au/lrrcsc/inquiries/inquiry/452

Written by Ian Porter
June 22, 2017