How Australia can patch over its potholes

This week’s ATN feature investigates the issues keeping local roads in disrepair and what governments can do to solve it

How Australia can patch over its potholes
Potholes continue to present themselves as a major problem in Australia

Nothing angers Australians more than a pothole. Whether it be on the school run in suburban areas or taking prime movers up and down major highways, a pothole is always an inconvenience that also poses serious safety risks. While potholes have become a constant on Australian roads, from country to CBD, they’ve since grown to be a much bigger problem than many people might think.

A recent report by the Grattan Institute uncovered that on most local roads, particularly in rural regions, Australians will encounter either a pothole, soft edge or another hazard.

The report, Potholes and Pitfalls: How to fix local roads, found that the reason behind local roads being in their current state is because they’re underfunded by governments to the tune of $1 billion.

"This $1 billion figure is just to maintain them in their current condition, let alone bring them up to a standard the community would be satisfied with," report author Natasha Bradshaw told ATN.

Bradshaw says there are many reasons behind the lack of funding on local road repair. One of those is that federal funding hasn’t been able to keep up with local council costs.

Local councils manage 77 per cent of local roads, with untied funding known as financial assistance grants from the federal government being the primary inflow that councils rely upon to fund local road repairs.

These grants are indexed to consumer price inflation (CPI) and population, meaning that the indexation of these grants hasn’t been able to keep up with local council costs. Indexation was also paused by the federal government between 2014 and 2017.

Had indexation not been paused, Bradshaw says they would be nearly $600 million higher.

Along with this, the focus continues to draw further away from local road repair. While new road investment is reaching new heights, the report found that governments are currently only putting money into new roads rather than maintaining current ones that are under local government management.

Tied grants are also a factor. Most local governments will receive these grants that are only focused on one specific area, with Bradshaw adding that the burden is often high on the local governments and that conditions are "too over the top".

Bradshaw says transport spending by local governments is now just more than 20 per cent, whereas back in the 1960s it formed half of governments’ expenditure.

"Instead, councils are spending more money on other services, particularly the environment and social services," Bradshaw says.

"But they’re having trouble raising revenue, especially in regional and remote areas where there are less people to pay for things."

 Spending by local governments on transport has dropped dramatically

Different methods mentioned in the report were used to find how much the gap was for local road maintenance funding. Comparing preservation costs estimated by the Grattan Institute to the reported maintenance and renewal expenditure in the National Local Roads Data System, the report determined a maintenance spending gap for each council.

National maintenance underspend was then determined by adding the gap of every Australian council that’s spending less than the estimated requirement.

Road managers and local councils were also surveyed by the authors, with questions focused on funding arrangements and asset management practices. In the report, 537 councils were sent the survey online across all states bar South Australia, with 81 responding to it.

The Grattan Institute says 277 surveys were sent to regional councils, with 46 responding to them. Majority of surveys sent were sent to Western Australian and New South Wales councils, with 26 out of 270 councils responding to the survey from those states. It was Victorian councils that responded the most to the survey, with 26 out of 80 councils responding to it.

Results from the survey included 70 councils having trouble hiring or retaining engineers while only 50 per cent of councils had either one or multiple full-time equivalent staff member whose job is on road management. To add to this, regional and remote councils both spent an average of more than three hours applying for road and bridges grants.

Despite spending more hours applying for these grants, Bradshaw says majority of them are being delivered to inner-city councils.

"A lot of the funding currently is going to councils in major cities that are already quite self-sufficient and that’s because they’ve got bigger populations to raise rates from and are often populations that have higher incomes," Bradshaw says.

"We’d like to see the funding redirected more to the councils that need it the most."

Along with redirecting funds, Bradshaw also recommends that the federal government supports councils more. This comes in the form of establishing a road hierarchy that has essential data items attached to it as well as set minimum service level standards.

Another recommendation involves funding for councils to acquire the necessary technology, software and staff training to collect data on these roads and use it to repair them.

From a state government perspective, the report recommends they consult with these local governments and develop best practice document templates for asset management and long-term financial plans.

Bradshaw says that governments should start implementing these solutions due to these recommendations being long-term propositions.

"It’ll take time to lift the capabilities of councils, so it’s not something you can do overnight," Bradshaw says.

"The government in 2018 committed to implementing a road hierarchy, that still hasn’t come into effect.

"It’s been a small journey and it would be good if it picked up in pace a bit."

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