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Plenty of potholes, but not enough shovels

When Tasmanians start counting the number of potholes in highways and roads, government knows it has a problem.

If there’s one thing RACT members are vigilant about – and quick to tell us – it’s the state of our roads. Hence the emails and phone calls we have received about the deteriorating surface of the Bass Highway between Launceston and Devonport.

In our recent survey of members on road safety, road quality was a major issue in terms of safety and efficiency – and damage to vehicles from broken road surfaces.

Maximum pothole count by one driver on the Bass Highway: more than 250.  There are many more drivers not counting, just cursing.

To their credit, the government and its road maintenance contractors are quick to respond when bad-weather events affect the surfaces of our highways.

For example, while the rockfall that blocked the Tasman Highway in Paradise Gorge caused major disruption and damage to businesses already struggling because of the pandemic, the response in a very challenging physical environment showed what government and contractors could accomplish under pressure.

With 3700 kilometres of state-controlled highway, even the best response is limited in its reach and its capacity in terms of people and machines.

And therein lies the challenge for government – not just in maintenance but new roadworks.

The big question on road infrastructure that the RACT and others identified before the State Budget was handed down was whether the Government could deliver promised road projects within the timetable it set itself.

Or whether, once again, there would be a significant underspend as projects were delayed or not even started.

Well, this time we have seen a sensible dose of reality. Government has heeded the call to align its promises with the capacity to deliver.

This Budget has set timetables and funding over the next four years to reflect the fact that the businesses given the task of making our roads safer, more efficient, better built and better maintained are at capacity.

That doesn’t mean the RACT and road users are happy that things are going to take longer.  The pressure must remain on Government to address the underlying causes of infrastructure delays.

In other circumstances, a construction sector with its workbooks full would be something a Government could crow about – like cranes on city skylines.

But this time it revealed a significant public-private challenge. Some businesses simply don’t have the skills and the workforce to take on more.

The workforces are gainfully employed but capacity constraints stand in the way of employment growth.

Tasmania certainly needs to build what it calls a high-vis army to bring our roads up to standard, but that will take some years unless our workforce training is significantly increased.

Currently, we have hard-working battalions when we need regiments.

The Government recognises this with funding in the State Budget to the civil construction sector of $1 million a year over the next four years to ramp up training and workforce development. But the promised TAFE reforms the Government says would help deliver the skills and capacity the sector needs face a bumpy road ahead.

One important step has been the decision to have 10-year programs for our highway renewal – a key election ask by the RACT.

Those plans give the civil construction and professional services sectors certainty so they can invest in their workforces and machines. That means more jobs, not just in those sectors but in the businesses that serve them – many of them in regional Tasmania, close to the heart of the work that needs to be done along our vital transport corridors.

The $371.6 million in road infrastructure projects outlined in the Budget, many of which have already been announced, will deliver better, safer, more efficient roads.

But, as the timetables show, some key projects are years away. For example, the South Arm Highway from Pass Rd to Oakdowns won’t be finished until 2028. The Algona Rd and Kingston bypass won’t be open until 2027.  The Channel Highway bypass of Huonville is five years away from completion. And as the Budget’s cautionary note says: Completion dates reflect the current best estimates.

The maintenance Budget also reflects that cold reality with a steady-as-she-goes spending out to 2024-25.

Governments of all persuasions love the phrase ‘shovel-ready projects’. Well, we have plenty of those on the Bass Highway, but not enough shovels.

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Written by our Chief Advocacy Officer Garry Bailey