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Debate Highway maintenance

Highway maintenance is, some say, the curse of today's motorist. But are the contraflows, lane restrictions and traffic jams really necessary? This week we ask: Do we spend too much on trunk road maintenance?


Jim Bostock, asset management director, Severn Trent Utility Services Britain's motorways are being subjected to the most proactive resurfacing programme in western Europe, at massive cost. This is measured in terms of contract value and, more importantly, the impact of delayed journeys on the UK economy.

What is the case for this maintenance programme? If it is bad construction or engineering specification, why are we dealing with the symptom rather than the underlying problem?

It cannot be safety related as Britain already has the safest roads in Europe thanks to good driver behaviour, a tight MOT test and firm policing of drink-drive laws. (Incidentally, better speed management on our motorways, most of which are still largely camera free, would win in any cost/ benefit trade-off against improved skid resistance. ) Perhaps it is about ride quality. But today's cars can easily soak up much more punishment than the UK's smooth tarmac surfaces can hand out.

It could be about minimising whole-life costs - one of the Highways Agency's stated objectives. It may well be that pre-emptive resurfacing is less costly over the long term than patching and longer cycle reconstruction, although coming from an industry which has had to learn how to 'sweat its assets', I remain to be convinced. This ignores the economic blows dealt by delaying freight and business journeys, which must massively outweigh any benefit in terms of direct contract costs.

I cannot prove that this biggest ever programme of resurfacing is the product of an unholy alliance between the roads lobby, the highway engineering profession and the contracting industry.

However, I drive 35,000 miles a year and am head of asset and investment planning in a major utility.

I have a strong gut feeling. And over the years the adage: 'If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck it is a duck' has served me well - I have never yet ordered Thrush Ó l'orange!


Roy Browne, chief maintenance engineer, Parkman The trunk road and motorway network is the lifeblood of the British economy. Although it accounts for less than 4% of the national road system, it carries 34% of the nation's traffic and 60% of its freight.

It is a national asset worth £60bn and must be properly maintained to preserve its value.

The issue, then, is not whether maintenance is necessary - this is indisputable - but whether we maintain the asset in the most cost effective way.

Reliable and factual information is paramount if we are to ensure that maintenance intervention takes place in the most appropriate way.

The UK leads the world in condition assessment and pavement management systems - resulting in a wealth of network data on which informed decision-making can be based. As a result maintenance strategies are developed in economic terms, rather than (as is still the case in many countries) on the basis of short-term solutions to chronic needs.

Do we strike the right balance between the cost of highway maintenance against the cost of road user disruption? To disrupt the travelling public less will inevitably cost more through longer and more complex contracts. Conversely, to reduce the costs of maintenance by allowing the contractor greater access to running lanes, will require the public to accept even more disruption.

Network Rail is considering this balance in its forward planning.

I believe the current level of spending on highway maintenance is certainly not too high, and recognise that as we strive to keep ever larger volumes of traffic flowing with more reliability, the unit cost of maintenance must inevitably rise.

The challenge will be to ensure that better environmental management through reduction, re-use and recycling results in cost savings rather than increases.

The facts l91% of local authority highways engineers believe councils compromise safety by under funding highway maintenance, according to the Asphalt Industry Alliance.

lPublic spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) has criticised the Highways Agency for failing to prioritise maintenance work properly.

The NAO highlighted regional variations in the road network with 5.2% of roads in the south east below standard compared with 9.1% of roads in the north west.

lThe Highways Agency spent £619M on maintaining motorways and trunk roads in 2001/02 compared with £544.5M in 2000/2001.

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