WA roads at breaking point

WA's decision to outsource road maintenance has backfired, leaving the road network at breaking point and leading to cost blowouts

By Brad Gardner

Western Australia’s decision to outsource road maintenance has backfired, leaving the State’s road network at breaking point and leading to cost blowouts.

Auditor General Colin Murphy’s investigation into the maintenance of Western Australia’s road network reveals a system in a state of disrepair and a Government facing a bill of more than $800 million to fix the situation.

In his report, Maintaining the State Road Network, Murphy says Main Roads’ decision to contract out road maintenance responsibilities between 1999 and 2009 has increased the risk of structural failures.

Murphy found planned maintenance such as resurfacing fell by 30 percent over the ten-year period, while rebuilding plummeted 80 percent.

According to the report, more than one quarter of the network is overdue for resurfacing, while 20 percent of the network needed to be resurfaced 10 years ago.

"Main Roads estimated the entire network should be resurfaced every 15 years and rebuilt every 40 years. At the current rates, it will take 25 years to resurface and 250 years to rebuild," Murphy says.

The report says Main Roads will now be forced to spend $300 million on rebuilding roads, $250 million fixing deteriorating bridges and up to $437 million resurfacing damaged routes.

But any plans to improve the network may be hampered because Main Roads does not have adequate information detailing road quality.

According to Murphy’s findings, the department has neglected to routinely collect information on road surfaces despite the report saying "good practice suggests that such data should be collected on average every two years or more frequently for older roads".

"Addressing overdue planned maintenance will be expensive and effectively targeting any restoration will be difficult for Main Roads due to a lack of some key information about the condition of the road network," Murphy says.

Main Roads has defended the decision to outsource road maintenance, arguing it has been in the best interests of the State.

"These contracts have provided good outcomes and significant savings," the department says in its response.

Yet Murphy found substantial flaws in the contracts, saying Main Roads failed to transfer responsibility for road deterioration to contractors.

Furthermore, the department incorrectly estimated the cost of the 10-year contracts, with the prices blowing out by an extra 59 percent, or $467 million.

"The major reason for this is the increase in global oil prices," the report says.

However, Murphy notes that Main Roads has altered some contracts following disputes with contractors.

This involved Main Roads taking back control over when and where maintenance was carried out and prioritising maintenance investment.

Murphy has recommended the department pay greater attention to road asset management. This includes determining and costing the level of overdue maintenance required.

The report also advocates changes to contractual processes, saying Main Roads should apply the lessons learned when entering new agreements.

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