Rural roads in funding tailspin: report

James Nason, 30/11/2011

A group representing 120 local councils says a new national road condition assessment and investment strategy is required to solve the rural road maintenance crisis. Image: Australian Rural Road Group A report commissioned by a group representing 120 rural-based councils throughout Australia has condemned the country’s ‘broken’ road funding system.

The Australian Rural Roads Group is a national alliance of 120 rural-based local governments.

It commissioned an analysis of Australia’s road funding, pricing and investment system earlier this year, and says the results turn accepted logic about road funding “on its head”.

In contrast to findings by a 2006 Productivity Commission inquiry into road pricing, the paper concludes that Australian roads are not receiving adequate re-investment through road user charges.

As a result rural roads are slipping further into “a multi-billion dollar maintenance tailspin”.

The report suggests that existing road reform efforts overseen by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) are entirely off track.

“They refuse to address the actual costs and condition of the nation’s roads,” the report says.

“Canberra has absolutely no information about the actual cost and condition of over 600,000km of local roads worth over $75 billion; the resulting chronic underfunding is creating a maintenance time bomb that is costing lives and lost productivity – particularly in rural Australia.”

In contrast to an apparent Government view that rural local roads are 'heavily-subsidised basket cases not worthy of significant investment', ARRG case studies show that some are so efficient that they pay for their own upkeep just through current vehicle traffic levels.

The group believes the finding should open the door to greater levels of targeted investment in roads and could also pave the way for private investment in road networks. 

Speaking at the launch of the ‘Worth Feeding: Case Studies of Rural Local Road Efficiency and Reform of Australia’s Road Pricing and Investment Systems’ report, ARRG chairman John Coulton, who is also the mayor of the Gwydir council in northern NSW, said the analysis broke new ground in the road funding debate.

It challenged the Productivity Commission’s position that Australia had a road charging system that made sure the true costs of roads were being recovered. 

“This just can’t be the case,” Cr Coulton said.

“We are facing multi-million dollar funding gaps across the country in road maintenance budgets. 

“We are falling further and further behind.  Our roads are becoming less efficient for our freight task and some are becoming impassable or downright unsafe for our communities. 

“The system is broken and Australia needs to see it as reform of national significance.”

Mr Coulton said the solution to the roads crisis lay in a developing an accurate national road asset condition and cost reporting system.

This was not yet done in Australia, which meant that road spending was a completely hit-and-miss affair, making it vulnerable to politics and poor bureaucratic outcomes.

The group has sent its report – ‘Worth Feeding: Case Studies of Rural Local Road Efficiency and Reform of Australia’s Road Pricing and Investment Systems’ – to federal and state ministers and opposition counterparts and hopes to commence a series of workshops with politicians and treasury executives to push for manadatory road asset reporting and nationwide management to fix the rural local roads crisis.


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