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The importance of better road maintenance to Canberrans

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I am delighted to bring this matter of public importance in my name to the Assembly today. The ACT Government’s role is to provide excellent local services to the people whom they represent and were elected to serve, and road maintenance is an important part of these local services. It is certainly a matter of public importance to Canberrans. I spoke with many thousands of people as I was campaigning last year, and the poor quality of the ACT’s roads and associated infrastructure was easily the most common complaint that I heard.

And for good reason. As road maintenance experts Sally Burningham and Natalya Stankevich have noted:

  1. Roads make a vital contribution to economic and social development, uniting communities and providing access to employment and social, health and educational services.

  2. Over time, all road infrastructure ages, and because of this, roads require regular maintenance and renewals before they reach a stage of significant deterioration.

  3. Regular road maintenance not only preserves current assets but also lowers future costs for citizens, road users and rates payers.

  4. And the condition of road surfaces is an important factor in transport safety.

In addition, the condition and quality of our roads contribute to the image of the national capital and the perceptions of visitors to Canberra.

With these points in mind, it would seem that the residents of Canberra who have spoken to me both before and after last year’s election often have a clearer understanding of the need for better road maintenance and general urban services than the ACT Government itself apparently does. Ideologically charged debates on issues that will never be decided in this chamber should not – indeed, cannot – replace the central role of this government in providing world-class infrastructure and attendant urban services.

Unfortunately, for years, the pattern in the ACT has been for the Territory and Municipal Services Directorate (TAMS) to set targets for the resurfacing of both the territorial road network and the municipal road network ... only to fail, year after year after year, to meet these targets. This has created a serious backlog of adequate road maintenance as more and more roads have fallen behind schedule for essential repair and renewal, increasing the risk of irreversible deterioration, posing a safety threat to all road users, and almost certainly increasing the cost of future repairs to these roads.

The one bright spot in this rather depressing story is that, according to the TAMS Annual Report for 2015–2016, the directorate finally reached its annual road maintenance targets last year – a feat that, according to the same report, was made possible not because the territory’s finances have been managed in order to provide adequate road maintenance funding but rather because ‘Roads to Recovery’ moneys provided by the Commonwealth Government allowed TAMS to resurface nearly double the amount of square metres that they did in the previous two years. In other words, Madam Speaker, without assistance from the Federal Liberal Government last financial year, the backlog of roads in the territory awaiting needed maintenance would have grown even larger.

As it is, the road maintenance targets for last year were just barely reached. The goal for the territorial road network was 5%; 5.1% was achieved. The goal for the municipal road network was 4%, with exactly that figure being reached. This means that, in the words of the Annual Report, quote, ‘the backlog of resurfacing works throughout the territory’ was ‘maintained’. We can all be grateful, of course, that this backlog did not once again grow even larger and more unwieldy, but it must be pointed out, Madam Speaker, that, unless the ACT Government at some point actually starts to reduce this backlog of roads awaiting their scheduled maintenance, it is only a matter of time before these roads begin to fail and can only be restored to use through very costly repairs.

Many of Canberra’s road users may not fully understand the projected lifespan of certain road surfaces and the resulting schedule of resurfacing that our road networks therefore require, but they can certainly see the poor quality of the roads that has resulted from the ACT Government’s chronic neglect regarding this matter. Numerous roads in the territory are pitted with potholes, and often the repairs to these potholes do not last. I have personally spoken with constituents who have told me of potholes that have returned mere weeks after being filled.

This is unacceptable but highlights a more important issue. As indicated by Burningham and Stankevich’s research, the appearance of potholes is one sign that road maintenance has not been performed on schedule. Roads that look acceptable and usable on the surface are often hiding significant problems below. By the time these problems become apparent on the surface, considerable deterioration of the roadbed has frequently occurred.

When resurfacing of the territory’s roads does occur, nearly 85% of the time, as measured in square metres, this resurfacing is with chip seal, not asphalt – which is certainly a more attractive option from the perspective of cost. Chip seal, however, requires fairly high traffic for the loose gravel to be compacted into a suitable surface. This can be a real problem when this resurfacing method is used in low-traffic municipal streets such as cul-de-sacs. In 2014, Minister Rattenbury admitted that TAMS was no longer using chip seal in the car parks at shopping centres because of its, and I quote, ‘obvious difficulties’. Yet these same ‘obvious difficulties’ occur equally in the quieter suburban streets where chip seal is still being used.

Failing roads, frequent repairs, the use of unsuitable resurfacing materials and disruptions to commutes are just some of the problems Canberrans face most days as a consequence of poor planning. Complaints concerning other infrastructure issues that accompany municipal roads in particular are also raised with me and other members of this Assembly. The city’s footpaths are often in a shocking state of disrepair, and as we learnt in this chamber just last year, there is no formal inspection program for paths, meaning that – unlike for roads, where a maintenance schedule exists even if it is neglected – there is in effect no formal programmed maintenance for these important structures.

Canberra residents, of course, can contact government services and report cracked and uneven footpaths, and I have spoken to a number of constituents who have done just this, but what happens thereafter seems to be anybody’s guess. More than once, Madam Speaker, residents have pointed out to me sections of a footpath that, after having been reported, have had their breaks and cracks spray-painted, presumably to identify them for repair; in each case, the paint had been there so long that it was nearly completely faded, and yet the footpaths remained cracked and uneven. Such a situation creates a very difficult and often unsafe situation for normal pedestrians. Now try to imagine being in a wheelchair or pushing a pram.

Just last week I spoke with an elderly constituent who lives in a street with no footpaths at all. This good woman wants to be out and about to get some exercise but relies upon a walking frame and finds it difficult to do so considering the rough, uneven nature of the road surface and the fact that she has to share it with cars. This is not OK.

Madam Speaker, elderly Canberrans who want to be active should not feel that they have no safe surfaces to walk on. Road users should not have to worry that the territory’s poorly maintained roads will claim another of their tyres. Residents of this city should not have to face the frustration that comes from inadequate repairs to the streets in their suburbs.

We can do better than this. The poor condition of Canberra’s roads is just one symptom from what seems to many Canberrans to be systemic neglect on the part of the ACT Government to maintain the infrastructure in the city’s suburbs. I note that many of the large tree branches that came down around my electorate as a result of the windstorm on 13 January are still lying along our streets, across our crumbling footpaths, and in our neglected parks. These same parks spend much of the year with overgrown grass obscuring their aging, broken playground equipment and no-longer-functioning bubblers. This general shabbiness does not befit the nation’s capital.

Madam speaker, we can do better than this. And we must do better than this.

Thank you.

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