Rural roads missing out on funding

By: Steve Skinner, Photography by: Steve Skinner

There’s a massive road and rail building boom in the big capital cities, but have governments been forgetting about Australia’s country roads?

An accident waiting to happen on the Murray Valley Highway?

As any truck driver and operator knows, Australia’s rural and regional roads can be tough on trucks and drivers.

The photos shown here are an all too common sight. No bitumen outside the fog-line; and maybe no intact fog-line at all.

Believe it or not, the trucks passing each other with little margin for error before dropping into the big hole are on a busy freight and tourism "highway". It’s a stretch of the Murray Valley Highway between Cobram and Yarrawonga in northern Victoria.

Imagine the possible consequences for the driver and/or the gear if there’s heavy rain at night, and an oncoming truck or caravan is veering too close to the centre line, forcing the driver to get one set of wheels into the soft gravel. Just one foot of intact bitumen past the fog-line could have been a big help.

While the state and federal governments are spending tens of billions of dollars on new big-city motorways and rail lines, they are simply not spending enough on existing roads in the bush.

Is this road slowly disappearing?

That view is coming not just from regional and long distance operators and drivers; peak trucking and motoring organizations; and peak bodies for local government. It’s also coming from the independent government advisory body on these matters, Infrastructure Australia.

"The varied quality of Australia’s regional road network is resulting in a high number of crashes and fatalities," says Infrastructure Australia.

"Between 2008 and 2016, 55 per cent of road fatalities in Australia occurred in regional areas. Relative to population size, the number of fatalities in regional areas was over four times greater than for major cities over the same period."

Those sobering statistics are in Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 "Infrastructure Priority List" of nationally significant investments, released earlier this year. Regional road safety featured heavily, as did a call to cater for the ever-increasing number of truck movements on country roads.

Listed as a "High Priority Initiative" nationally is "Regional Road Network Safety Improvements".

"While behavioural factors are a significant cause of road crashes, infrastructure deficiencies such as the curvature of roads are also a cause of accidents," says the report.

"Infrastructure can play an important role in mitigating the consequences of road accidents through features such as safety barriers and the appropriate placement of embankments, poles and other roadside objects.

"There is a risk that the growing road freight task may exacerbate these road safety issues as more heavy vehicles travel on roads in regional areas." 

Ready to rumble and the bitumen is past the fogline.

Simple safety fixes

In its report, Infrastructure Australia recommends not only more safety barriers, but also wide centre lines, and rumble strips (which might alert fatigued drivers that they are drifting out of their lane).

These sorts of relatively inexpensive measures are proven to save lives.

A 2017 report by the Australian Road Research Board quotes a Monash University study from 2003 involving the sort of edge and centreline wire rope barrier systems that have been increasingly installed on Australian roads in recent years.

The study concluded the barriers resulted in a reduction in deaths and serious injuries of up to an incredible 90 per cent. (Mind you, many truck drivers believe wire ropes are being placed too close to the fog-line, not leaving enough room to park safely in case of a breakdown or accident.)

Another measure raised by the Road Research Board as being "highly effective" but in limited use are wide centre lines. "Simply painting wider centre lines to leave a gap – without concrete barriers or wire ropes – has been found to reduce both head-on crashes and run-offs to the side," it says.

Councils not coping

The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) points out that councils reap less than 4 per cent of Australia’s total taxation revenue, but have to manage 75 per cent of the nation’s roads.

ALGA President David O’Loughlin says, in the foreword to the 2019 Local Government Roads and Transport Agenda: "Across Australia, local governments have insufficient revenue capacity to maintain their road networks to the original standard, let alone upgrade them to modern lane widths, safety standards or load-bearing capacities."

ALGA points out that the three quarters of the Australian road network which is managed by local government accounts for more 40 per cent of all road deaths. (There were 1,181 deaths for the year to the end of April.)

Living on the edge.

Another alarming statistic from the Local Government Association is that there are 27 hospitalisations for every death. Deaths and injuries are costing a mammoth $27 billion per year. (On the brighter side the number of fatalities has reduced over the decades.)

The "last mile access" issue for the biggest trucks is also a big one, with ALGA reminding governments that the majority of the rapidly growing freight movements in Australia start and finish on a local government road.

Sharing the roads

It’s not all bad news for federal and state government spending on the regional roads they are directly responsible for. Dual lanes, overtaking lanes and wider shoulders continue to be built, for example.

Apart from big spending on highways the Federal Government has its Roads to Recovery Program; Black Spot Program (for example traffic lights and roundabouts); Bridge Renewal Program; and Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program.

By far the largest of these programs, Roads to Recovery, helps local councils (and remote areas where there are no councils). In the April 2019 Budget the Government announced an extra $1 billion for the program, taking its expenditure to $5.6 billion for the 10 years to 2022-2023 – averaging $560 million per year.

Getting back to the Murray Valley Highway, early last year the Federal and Victorian Governments pledged $20 million between them over a couple of years to improve safety along the 130 kilometre stretch between Echuca and Yarrawonga.

"Over the last decade there has been a significant increase in traffic volumes and the highway has seen an increase in crashes," says the VicRoads press release, announcing measures such as shoulder widening, improved barriers and intersection upgrades.

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