Whilst resource work drops back, an increase in spending on public road and transport infrastructure projects is creating an important area of opportunity for engineers and engineering practices throughout Australia.
In its latest forecast, Australian Construction Industry Forum says it expects the dollar value of work done on construction of roads and other forms of transport related infrastructure (bridges, railways, harbours etc.) throughout the country to increase by more than 20 percent over the next three years from $23.894 billion in 2014/15 to $28.999 billion in 2017/18.
Indeed, over the next five years to 2019/20, activity on roads alone is set to surge by almost 40 percent from $15.174 billion in 2014/15 to $21.143 billion as work ramps up on major road projects across most states.
That is driving the creation of opportunities not only for engineering firms but also for a number of segments of the sector’s workforce. In its most recent quarterly report, recruitment outfit Hays, for example, said civil engineers, civil designers and MX designers were needed for work on road and highway infrastructure project activity. Rail engineers with electrification experience were also in demand and opportunities for traffic planners were opening up as growing transport volumes create the need for more research and analytics, Hays said.
The latest forecasts come at a time of interesting developments within the sector. The appointment last year of a Minister for Cities has been largely hailed as a ‘game changer’, albeit with the individual minister himself having been dumped over well-publicised disciplinary matters. Equally important was Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to allocate federal funding to the Gold Coast Rail Project – reversing what appeared to be a vendetta against Commonwealth funding of public transport projects during the reign of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The federal government is also looking at value capture methods as a way of unlocking funding for urban renewal projects.
Interesting developments are also happening at the state level. In Queensland, for example, the release of a draft state infrastructure plan late last year gave the sector at least some idea of what the current state government – which was elected early last year despite not having a clearly outlined capital works program – is thinking in terms of longer term priorities. In New South Wales, meanwhile, the government is holding an inquiry into how it can improve procurement practices as work on major infrastructure projects ramps up in that state.
Longer term, questions remain about how technologies such as ride sharing services and driverless cars might impact demand for new roads. In a recent paper, Telstra Chief Scientist Dr Hugh Bradlow argued that whilst population growth would mean we would require around two and a half times our current road capacity if we were to build and operate roads in the same way that we do today, adoption of the aforementioned technologies could allow us to accommodate the entire increase in demand within our existing road network and alleviate the need to build new roads altogether.
State by state:
On a state by state basis, according to ACIF (major states only):
In New South Wales, the value of work done on road based construction will grow from $5.741 billion in 2014/15 to almost $7 billion in 2017/18 amid work on projects such as WestConnex, the new motorway associated with the Badgerys Creek Airport, the F3 to M2 Orbital Corridor and various upgrades to the Pacific Highway. Work on non-road forms of transport will increase from $1.810 billion in 2014/15 to $2 billion in 2016/17.
In Victoria, relatively low levels of road building activity are anticipated following the cancellation of East West Link at least until the Western Distributor Project starts up but the volume of work on non-road transport projects is set for a strong rebound amid the state government’s level crossing removal program.
Road building activity will rebound in Queensland but will remain at modest levels compared with recent history: that on rail, bridge and port projects will bottom out at ten year lows this year before increasing steadily thereon after.
In South Australia, work on both road and non-road forms of transport is expected to bottom out this year but remain at historically low levels compared with recent years when the South Road project was being built.
In Western Australia, road construction activity is expected to bounce off eight year lows recorded in 2014/15 and grow by almost 35 percent over the three years to 2017/18 thanks to work on projects such as the extension of Roe Highway and Northlink (previously known as the Swan Valley Bypass). That on rail, bridges and harbours will also have bottomed out in 2014/15 as the full effect of the resource sector slowdown kicks in and should also start rising slowly again from this year onward.