Almost one third of Northern Ireland’s road maintenance budget last year was spent on patching up potholes instead of improving the condition of the roads.
And personal liability claims made against Roads Service for personal injury and vehicle damage incurred on carriageways rose 15% in a year to just under 3,000.
Roads campaigners have joined Transport Minister Conor Murphy in urging the Executive to take seriously the recommendations of a new report on the condition of Northern Ireland’s roads which warns that the annual structural maintenance budget needs to rise £30 million a year to £108m. This year’s budget is £71.8m and is set to drop to £70.4m next year.
Professor Martin Snaith, author of the review of the structural maintenance requirements for Roads Service, warned that it could still take 20 years to clear a backlog of more than £700m needed to rebuild roads that are not ‘fit for purpose’. In 1998, this backlog stood at just £100m.
Personal liability claims made against Roads Service over carriageway incidents rose 15% to 2,893 in 2008/9 — of these, 1,883 involved vehicle damage and 826 were for personal injury, while 184 were for property damage or ‘other’. Much of the increase was was down to an 434 additional claims for damage to vehicles.
The report reveals that 30% of the Structural Maintenance Budget is now spent on patching potholes, as opposed to what Professor Snaith describes as the “stitch in time” approach.
“Unplanned reactive patching of the road surface is less efficient and usually provides poor value for money but nonetheless is, in the short term, essential to maintain the serviceability of roads and footways where localised failures may occur,” he said.
“In the past the Roads Service has estimated, and the Northern Ireland Audit Office has accepted, that a reasonable level of expenditure on such activities would be around 10% of the Structural Maintenance Budget.
“The current level is £21.5 million representing around 30% of the Structural Maintenance Budget.”
Almost half (46%) the Trunk Road Network (TRN) is below the UK level of skidding resistance, at which investigations would be launched into the need for remedial work, compared to 35% in in 2003. Some 31% of non-trunk A Class roads are below the level.
In England the comparable figures are just over 10% for the TRN and 24% for non-trunk A Class Roads.
Earlier this week, Transport Minister Conor Murphy called for increased investment, warning that the Executive needs to be aware of these funding challenges when it sets its priorities.
“The report highlights the case for a significantly enhanced level of investment to carry out much needed maintenance repair work across the network,” he said.
The RAC Foundation said a serious recommendation has been made and must be acted on for the good of all road users.
“Not to do so would be a false economy. Damaged road surfaces deteriorate quickly and the bill for repairing them then rises just as fast,” spokesman Philip Gomm said. “Prompt action is needed, not least to end the perverse situation where the Roads Service is spending more and more money on settling legal claims arising from the poor condition of the roads, and less and less on actually fixing the problem.
“But whilst this new budget — if given the go-ahead — might provide the funds to stop the backlog of work growing any further, the big issue is how you actually reduce it in the long run.”
The Quarry Producers Association of Northern Ireland, which represents the road building industry, backed Mr Murphy.
Regional Director Gordon Best, said: “Our members are acutely aware of the financial constraints the Executive is under at the present time but the warning by the minister that roads maintenance funding be given a higher priority must be taken on board.
“Over the past few years we have spent too much money filling potholes and basically papering over the cracks on our roads. This is a practice that is unsustainable and cannot continue or it will mean significant extra cost in future, significantly impacting on the potential growth and development of our economy.
“We must give the resurfacing of roads a higher priority over the next few years, in order to reduce the high level of spends on filling potholes.
“Our roads network is quite literally the veins and arteries through which the lifeblood of our economy flows.”
Fine the culprits, say AA members
Almost half of AA members (44%) in Northern Ireland insist that companies digging up roads without permission should be fined a percentage of annual turnover.
Meanwhile, 37% believe fines of over £20,000 would be appropriate for companies that dig up roads with permission or breach working conditions, according to the group’s new survey.
Last year (2008/9), roads across Northern Ireland were opened to carry out work for utilities companies on 35,000 occasions — almost 10% up on the previous financial year, figures released by DRD revealed.
The work was on behalf of the nine main utility companies operating in Northern Ireland — BT, Bytel, Cable and Wireless, Eircom, firmus energy, Northern Ireland Water, Northern Ireland Electricity, Phoenix Natural Gas and Virgin Media.
AA public affairs head Paul Watters told a street works summit in Birmingham convened by Transport Minister Sadiq Khan MP that unco-ordinated street works can be bad for the environment, as vehicles are often needlessly left idling their engines.
AA studies showed that 1,000 cars stationary at road works create 28.32kg of unnecessary CO2 each minute, and that excludes larger vehicles which can emit much more CO2.