Editorial | Accountability for our roads
Few issues in Jamaica have sparked greater angst among the population than poor roads. It is the subject of protests and mass irritation for frustrated citizens in communities across the island where cracks and craters have been developing in the ageing infrastructure.
These fissures have been aggravated by the impact of climate change, which now produces unprecedented flooding and other threats to the built environment, as we witnessed in May and again in October and November.
Farmers are impeded in getting their crops to market, children's education is disrupted, sick persons are hindered from getting medical attention in a timely manner, employees are prevented from getting to work, businesses are affected because customers don't have access, and motorists watch hopelessly as their vehicles undergo rapid depreciation.
The rash of demonstrations has caught the attention of Prime Minister Andrew Holness. Earlier this year, Mr Holness signalled his intention to leverage private pension funds into national development via infrastructure projects.
Noting that the private pension portfolio was awash with cash, the prime minister expressed the view that investment in infrastructure projects could spur economic growth while guaranteeing excellent return on investment. All of this reasoning makes perfect sense. So, now to action.
Jamaica is reputed to have one of the highest road densities in the world, a total of 15,248 kilometres (11,620 miles) of road. The National Works Agency (NWA) identified in 2013 some 700 kilometres of prioritised roads that were in need of urgent widening, rehabilitation or realignment. Under the Major Infrastructure Development Programme (MIDP), US$350 million was earmarked with substantial funding by the Chinese.
Fast-forward to 2016 when $6.97 billion was allocated towards the funding of the MIDP, and then in 2017 more than $16.55 billion was earmarked in the national Budget for projects to improve or rehabilitate the country's roads and bridges.
It's not as if infrastructure improvement is not on the agenda. However, although huge sums are being allocated for infrastructure work, it is never adequate to fulfil the needs.
Poor quality work
How has so much of the country's road network fallen into such dire disrepair? The short answer from most quarters would likely be neglect. Lack of maintenance has been the bane of the public sector's existence. But we submit that that is not all. On closer examination, we are led to question the quality of work being delivered in many of these various projects.
The NWA is the agency responsible for quality assurance and monitoring of infrastructure projects, including roadworks.
We are not convinced that the NWA is doing the best job to ensure that quality work is done and that taxpayers' get the best return on their investment. The municipal authorities, planning agencies and local authorities need to implement a protocol to ensure that damage to infrastructure during the construction phase is paid for, or repaired, by those liable.
It is high time, we believe, for there to be a national infrastructure standard that ensures a more coordinated approach to infrastructure development.
Take the construction sector, which is reportedly experiencing a surge in demand. How many times have we seen examples of developers excavating public roadways to lay pipes and conduits and in the end these roads are left in a shambolic state?
Is it the responsibility of the parish council or NWA to appraise these works to ensure they were done to code? Or are these bodies afraid of being labelled anti-growth?
The impact of new construction can be as good as it can be bad, but we submit that the way to tip the scales towards sustainable development is to implement proper monitoring procedures. The NWA should definitely ensure that its stewardship is not found wanting.