Local roads and bridges are in disarray.
You don’t have to travel far in Australia to find a dangerous pothole, especially in our regions. These roads make up the three-quarters of Australia’s road network that are managed by local councils. This extensive network is not being managed well.
Councils do need more money, but that won’t be enough. What’s also needed is a national plan to improve the management of local roads, starting with better data.
There are well-established guidelines that explain the best ways to manage roads, and no shortage of Australian guidance that translates these standards into a system of requirements for practical application by road managers. But road management in Australia is still a long way from best practice.
A baseline requirement for managing assets is knowing what assets you have. But when we surveyed councils about their assets for our latest report, a quarter did not know how many bridges they manage, and this rose to 50 per cent for remote councils. Over the past 5 years, Queensland councils ‘found’ 44 assets valued at $1.3 billion that had never previously been recorded in their financial statements. And when it comes to more detailed data, such as traffic on roads or the load capacity of bridges, councils know even less.
Without good quality data, it is very difficult to plan. Councils are required by legislation to have long-term planning documents for their finances and their assets. But more than a quarter do not have a plan for managing their roads and bridges, and almost 40 per cent do not have a long-term financial plan. Even when councils do have these documents, they are often of low quality.
Without high-quality planning documents, councils are at risk of investing in assets that they cannot afford to maintain, and they have no idea if they are getting value for their ratepayers. It’s also very difficult to consult your community on plans if you haven’t made them.
There is no doubt road and bridge management is far from best practice. But three key headwinds prevent councils from doing better: staff shortages, poor data quality, and technology. Councils won’t be able to fix these on their own.
Nearly 90 per cent of respondents to Grattan’s survey reported having difficulty hiring in the past 12 months. It is particularly difficult to find engineers and asset managers. The construction industry more broadly is suffering from shortages in skilled workers and materials needed for building. And councils with tight budgets struggle to compete for those workers and materials against large private operators and state and federal megaprojects.
Staffing challenges are felt more strongly in our regions, where councils manage vast road networks with limited staff. Councils in regional and remote areas manage an average of 1,400km of roads, but often do not even have one person working full time on road management.
The sector has made real progress towards collecting more information about assets, but there is a long way to go. Key datasets remain riddled with errors, lack standardisation, and often are not fit for purpose.
For example, different councils report very different estimates of the useful life of sealed roads, ranging from 10 years to more than 100 years. Some variation might be expected, but this distribution suggests a lack of knowledge, or – more likely – a deliberate attempt to appear more financially sustainable by artificially lowering annual depreciation expenses.
Technology can help councils to collect more accurate and useful data, store this information, and determine the best time to complete maintenance activities. But many councils told us that these technologies were simply unaffordable. Instead, they have to make do with Excel spreadsheets and visual assessments of their roads.
To manage their roads more effectively, councils will need more funding. But this won’t be enough. We also need to manage our roads better. And we can’t manage our roads better until we understand what roads we have, how they are used, and what condition they are in.
Councils do not have the resources to do that. The federal government needs to lead the charge. It should start by helping councils to collect a nationally standardised dataset with key information on local roads and bridges. This would allow councils to identify priority maintenance works, and compare and improve their performance.
Natasha Bradshaw is an associate in the Transport and Cities program at the Grattan Institute. Our latest report, Potholes and pitfalls: how to fix local roads, can be found at www.grattan.edu.au.