A road worker in a bright orange overalls on a fenced-off work section of the road patches a pothole with hot asphalt and ramps it with a petrol vibratory plate.

In the last severe floods in New South Wales radio reports told of severe damage to roads – big swathes of bitumen literally cut loose – isolating communities and blocking supply trucks from reaching those trapped by the flood waters.

According to The Grattan Institute extreme heat is also damaging.

“It effectively bakes the surface of asphalt or bitumen, drying it out so that it cracks or fails, and leaving it vulnerable to water getting into the pavement level and causing additional damage.”

But what was not so well reported at the time of the floods was that the burden of repairing storm damage – and road repairs in general – falls largely on local councils, which need to pick up the tab via rate payers.

Now, a new report from the institute has zeroed in on the severe funding shortfall from the federal government for fixing the potholes and worse. It’s also noted that motorists are “fed up”.

With more than 75 per cent of Australia’s roads managed by councils, Potholes and pitfalls: How to fix local roads slams federal and state governments for under resourcing and calls on the federal government to invest an extra $1 billion for road repair.

According to the report councils are expected to maintain all sealed and unsealed roads that link homes and businesses to the arterials, corridors, and freeways of the road network, but remote and rural councils are struggling to find adequate resources to properly maintain their vast stretches of roads.

In comparison, some metropolitan councils are often given more than enough funding to maintain their road networks despite being already self-sufficient – leading to the argument that the federal government should cut back the share of the funding pool for major city councils and redistribute the wealth amongst remote communities, who bear the brunt of climate conditions.

The gradual erosion of federal funding had been terrible for local roads in the past decade”

The problem goes further than the funding

A survey of councils conducted for the report also reveals that in addition to the funding problem a quarter of responding councils – and half of remote councils – did not know exactly what roads and bridges they manage.

Despite this, councils are obliged to spend part of any Roads to Recovery grant on road signs within six months of receiving the grant to acknowledge the federal government as the funding source. In addition, tied state grants favoured projects that were not priorities for local residents.

The report found that for councils to better manage their roads, the federal government must establish a national road hierarchy, minimum service standards, and basic data specifications for councils to follow.

In addition, findings also revealed that many regional and rural councils do not have a realistic way to raise the money needed to keep their roads in good condition.

An injection of $1 billion in funding would allow relevant councils to access an extra 25 per cent on top of what they are already spending on road maintenance, which accounts for only 10 per cent of what the federal government had spent on roads last year.

“It will take more than money alone to fix our roads, though: the funding needs to be better targeted, with cleaner lines of accountability from the funding source to the end point of better, safer roads,” the report found.

“Targeting road funding to where it’s needed most would put the road network back on track and allow councils to give communities the roads they need.”

So, how do we patch the holes?

“It’s no secret that people are fed up,” Grattan claimed.

Along with scathing reviews of how the state and federal government has failed residents and local councils, the report also provides a roadmap to how Australia could become a country with access to a better road network.

Recommendations are:

  • boosting funding for local roads
    • increasing core funding to local governments, with a $600 million annual increase in financial assistance grants and a $400 million annual increase in Roads to Recovery funds
    • an additional $200 million to assess and upgrade priority freight routes
  • fix funding distribution to ensure untied funding goes where it is needed most
    • allocate funding according to the principle that every council should have the capacity to provide a similar level of service to its community
    • reduce minimum grant to 10 per cent of an equal-per-capita share of the financial assistance grants pool
    • combine local roads component of the financial assistance grant with the general component
    • allocating funds for roads to recovery and similar programs
  • making tied funding less onerous for councils
    • state and federal governments should reform tied funding arrangements to reduce poorly targeted application, compliance, and accountability requirements
  • give councils more help to manage their roads
    • establish a national road hierarchy and minimum service level for roads
    • establish a small list of essential data attached to road hierarchy, which allows the councils to measure their performances
    • provide funding and support to access the required technology, software, and training

~with Tina Perinotto

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