Mikael Phillips | Can Jamaica continue without a proper road maintenance programme?
The prime minister and the current administration boast about the expansion of Jamaica’s road network, and have stated on several occasions that they have made the most road improvements that this country has ever seen. I often wonder if the Government has considered that existing and new roads need continuous maintenance?
Jamaica is susceptible to climate-related events such as hurricanes, earthquakes and periods of drought. These climate-related events, as well as everyday wear and tear, affect the road network, and continuous repair and maintenance is needed if the Government wants to uphold its promise of giving Jamaicans a smooth road network, or ‘carpet’, as the current administration terms it.
The previous and current administrations have focused on building new roads, while maintaining old ones directly from the Consolidated Fund. This approach is not sustainable, and the state of the Jamaican road network shows us we are not doing something right, as it is not possible for the Government to build and maintain existing roads using the Consolidated Fund mechanism, given competing priorities such as crime, education and health.
The National Works Agency (NWA) was established as an executive agency in April 2001, and its primary function is to maintain the road network through the usage of modern management practices and cost-effective techniques. Has the NWA been able to do this? I don’t think so, as the NWA in its current form epitomises the Government’s failure to provide and maintain critical infrastructure for the people of Jamaica. The reality is, the blame cannot be solely placed on the NWA, as the entity is inadequately resourced to carry out the extensive road repairs needed. In other words, the NWA has been given a ‘basket to carry water’.
ROAD OWNERSHIP CHALLENGES
The country’s road network is expansive, and many people may not know this, but it consists of over 26,000km, of which the NWA owns approximately 20 per cent of the paved main road network, the Municipal Council owns about 58 per cent, and the Ministry of Agriculture owns six per cent.
Additionally, 65 per cent of roads managed by the NWA are poor, 20 per cent are fair, and 15 per cent are in good condition.
In addition, the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development reported that before the October 2020 period of rain, 20 per cent of the roads it manages were in fair condition, 30 per cent needed periodic maintenance, and 50 per cent needed reconstruction and/or rehabilitation. Imagine what the current state of our road network is after the rains over the past months.
The issue of road ‘ownership’ is significant, as there are several debates on who owns which section of the road network, and budgetary constraints due to limited fiscal space are frequently used as an excuse for why no rehabilitation can be done. This results in gaping potholes or missing surfaces for long periods, which endangers road users.
In the interest of the Jamaican people, there needs to be a serious conversation to bring the 26,000km of roadway under one road authority. The NWA’s technical capacity should be bolstered and the necessary funding allocated to ensure Jamaica’s road maintenance programme is aligned to international best practices.
According to our road master plan, our roads are deteriorating faster than the maintenance and construction of new ones. Unfortunately, road maintenance is not seen as appealing to the electorate and will not give the prime minister press time for ribbon cutting, to add to his ‘accolades’. However, it is essential to note that roads are critical to economic development and growth, as there are many social benefits derived from a well-maintained road network that includes providing access to employment, social, health, and education services.
We must put people first and ensure that road maintenance is a priority, as it is crucial to our fight against poverty (Stankevich, 2005).
Therefore, we need a comprehensive road maintenance strategy and policy to guide our approach to road maintenance. This should encapsulate the following considerations: sustainability of maintenance, financial sustainability, economic sustainability, safety, environmental and social sustainability.
A road maintenance policy is crucial, as it will provide a framework to guide when the following maintenance work is carried out:
1. Routine maintenance work includes cleaning and clearing drainage, filling potholes and cracks, and maintaining verges.
2. Periodic maintenance work includes resealing every five years and rejuvenating the road surface.
3. Rehabilitative maintenance work includes overlaying the road surface every 15 years to restore smoothness and ensure durability.
Without a comprehensive road maintenance strategy and policy, our road repair processes will continue to remain haphazard, as some roads will be repaired several times, while others remain listed and are yet to see an inch of asphalt.
NO EASY FEAT
Solving the road maintenance problem is no easy feat, and that’s why previous road maintenance programmes were catastrophic failures or had short-lived successes. We need to learn from our mistakes and capitalise on existing knowledge to develop a sustainable road maintenance plan that benefits the people of this country.
However, it must be noted that given the extent of damage to Jamaican roads, it will be a costly exercise to rehabilitate our road network.
According to the NWA, $1 trillion is needed to improve the standards of our roads in Jamaica. We also need more than just increased financing – a more sustainable approach to the funding of road maintenance is required.
The Government must evaluate all the options of funding repair and choose the option that will deliver the best value for money, given the tight fiscal space.
The research has shown that a Road Maintenance Fund (RMF) is an effective and unbiased way of financing road maintenance (ADB, 2003). Jamaica had an RMF until 2017, when the Road Maintenance Fund Act of 2002 (Houses of Parliament, 2007) was repealed by the current administration.
The RMF must be re-established as an independent body, preferably as an act of Parliament. This fund should be separate from the Consolidated Fund and should solely be used for road maintenance and repair, not for any future construction exercise.
Before 2017, the RMF was funded by a Special Consumption Tax (SCT) on fuel, 33-and-a-third per cent of motor vehicle licence fees, duties, and other budgetary allocations. Given the extent of maintenance and repair work that needs to be done, an assessment would have to be carried out on how the RMF can become a self-financing entity to undertake the continuous road repairs and maintenance that is needed in modern Jamaica. This will ensure budget neutrality for the Government in this tight fiscal climate.
EFFICIENT USE OF RESOURCES
Additionally, the RMF must make efficient use of resources to ensure that value for money is attained. Therefore, the fund must employ modern approaches, such as economic analysis to justify payment rehabilitations, quality assurance (QA) systems, and appropriate procurement methodologies.
The RMF is not intended to take over the functions of the NWA, but would be used as a financing mechanism and an oversight body to ensure that the NWA’s work is carried out efficiently.
A re-established RMF will need to be more transparent, and should actively disseminate information to the public that allows road users to see where their money is being spent and what is achieved. This will engender public support, and persons will have the opportunity to hold the Government accountable, as citizens are key stakeholders in the road maintenance process.
An RMF is needed urgently, as the maintenance of our road network has a ripple effect on everything in our economy, from the cost of goods, transportation costs, and maintenance fees for both public and private motor vehicles. Currently, our deplorable road conditions are causing our citizens to have unnecessary expenses, and we must do everything within our power to ensure that Jamaicans obtain value for every hard-earned tax dollar spent.
Jamaica’s way forward in terms of road repair and maintenance is the re-institution of the Road Maintenance Fund.
Mikael Phillips is member of parliament for North West Manchester and shadow minister of housing, transport and works. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.