Regional roads under fire

UNDER THREAT: Rural councils with large unsealed road networks face huge challenges to maintain them due to their small rates base.
UNDER THREAT: Rural councils with large unsealed road networks face huge challenges to maintain them due to their small rates base.

The state of country roads have been at an all time low as rural councils struggle to keep up with rising maintenance costs.

Rural councils are in a roads crisis, as soaring costs for repairs and government budget cuts have hamstrung their ability to repair roads.

Politics has also seen blame thrown to all corners – federal, state and local government – for the funding shortfalls.

Particularly feeling the pinch are municipalities with huge road networks, but small populations.

In the Ballarat region this includes Hepburn Shire, Pyrenees Shire, Moorabool Shire, Golden Plains Shire and Ararat Rural City.

According to the Know Your Council website, resident satisfaction with roads in these municipalities was low.

These councils do not have parking revenue to add to their budget and few opportunities for user charges to fill the funding hole.

First the Abbott government froze financial assistance grants in 2014.

The Coalition wanted budget savings, so it stopped increasing the grants in line with inflation.

The Municipal Association of Victoria estimated $200 million was lost to Victorian councils between 2014 and 2017, when the grants were unfrozen.

Pyrenees Shire Council chief executive Jim Nolan said the freeze cost the municipality $463,000 over three years.

“The distribution of the financial assistance grants, has regard for resource constrained councils,” he said.

“The formula takes into account road length, and a range of other factors that disadvantage small rural councils.”

Rural councils, which received the most from the grants, also lost the most during the freeze.

The current state government also scrapped the Napthine government’s country roads and bridges program – roughly $1 million in funding for councils each year.

The opposition accused Premier Daniel Andrews of prioritising Melbourne instead of rural roads, although the government said the program was never funded beyond its first year anyway.

A final piece of the revenue shortfall for council’s was rate capping, put in place by the government, to stop councils exorbitantly increasing rates on residents.

Pyrenees Shire was approved for a special rate rise of 1.5 per cent above the cap, each year, for two years. It will add $115,000 to its budget, but can only be used on roads.

Mr Nolan said it had been the shire’s only option.

“Rates are the only other source of revenue, so council thought it important to make the application for a higher rate cap, to meet the service need.”

Roads receive low approval rating

Community perceptions of roads across the Ballarat region revealed discontent among ratepayers.

The Know Your Council website, which marked municipalities out of 100, said Hepburn Shire had the worst satisfaction level in 2015-16.

At 43 out of 100, it was the only municipality in the region below the average of 51/100 for similar councils.

Pyrenees Shire and Ararat Rural City scored the best for rural councils. Ballarat City topped the 2015-16 survey with a 58 satisfaction rating.

However the city’s latest data, released on Friday last week, showed a dramatic drop to 50.5/100.

Despite the dissatisfaction, Ballarat, Moorabool, Golden Plains and Pyrenees councils recorded a better result than the average for similar councils.

Work smarter, not cheaper

Technology used on large mining projects could be used to help councils save thousands of dollars on their annual roads maintenance budgets.

Civil engineer Neil Arbuthnot has worked on roads projects with local government and in the private sector for the past 50 years.

The consultant said ground penetrating radar could give councils a much clearer picture of a road’s condition than current methods.

“It will tell you how much gravel is left on the road, do you have to re-sheet it this year?” Mr Arbuthnot said.

“We need to use available technology, it needs to be introduced into local government.

“The old way of doing things is too expensive today, we have to find new ways.”

One of the biggest problems when re-sheeting unsealed roads was the costly exercise of taking gravel long distances to where work was being done.

Over time councils have had to use gravel pits further away from roadworks, which has added to the expense, forcing them to pay more.

 Mr Arbuthnot also said using new gravel mixes could help roads to last longer.

Pyrenees Shire Council has started adding a type of crushed bluestone instead of lower quality gravel from within the municipality.

Council chief executive Jim Nolan said although it cost more, it produced a better product.

Pyrenees Shire Council chief executive Jim Nolan

Pyrenees Shire Council chief executive Jim Nolan

“We might be carrying it 50 or 60km to where it is laid, compared to 10 or 20km, from some of the gravel quarries, but we’d like to think the roads will be better,” he said.

“The additional cost to cart the material may not be justified given the type of road, the classification and the usage.

“But as a general principle using better quality material up front is expected to produce benefits.”

The consultant said councils facing huge deficits in the infrastructure budgets had to find smarter ways of repairing their roads to save money.

“I don’t think we are spending the money as well as we possible be could,” he said.

“Your asset management system should be telling you when it is necessary to re-sheet a road, when it is necessary to reconstruct and that fits into your long term financial plan.”

What do the politicians say?

State government Roads Minister Luke Donnellan

State government Roads Minister Luke Donnellan

State government Roads Minister Luke Donnellan said funding for council roads was dependent on federal government grants.

Mr Donnellan said the budget for VicRoads’ maintenance work had doubled, but councils still needed more help.

“We would be keen to see the federal government put more money into that space for local councils,” he said.

“Funding for council roads is very much dependent on grants from the federal government.”

The government has put $58 million towards asphalting, sealing and shoulder repair at 100 locations.

It is also building 1700km of wire rope barriers, including on the Midland Highway, to improve safety.

Council can also now apply for a grant from the $25 million local roads to market fund, which is aimed specifically at fixing roads with high heavy vehicle use.

Mr Donnellan said budget figures indicated the government was spending about $200 million more than the former Coalition government.

“There is a large amount of money we are putting in specifically for the regions,” he said.

“Hopefully it gives some comfort to the community, we are putting a lot of money into the regions because of the benefit to the regional economy.”

Western Victorian MP Joshua Morris said roads were in a shambles because of the government’s cut to the country roads and bridges program.

Western Victoria MP Joshua Morris

Western Victoria MP Joshua Morris

“Budgets are about priorities, if you prioritise something you fund it,” he said.

“This government is indicating it does not prioritise country roads.”

“I think one of the real issues is the lack of genuine consultation, we have a dictatorial government that expects they can serve out edicts to the community.”