With the winter chill now well and truly upon us, we move into the period of the year when storm damage to our local roads becomes the norm.
Slips, trees falling, washouts and of course potholes become the common topics of conversation.
The state highways are not immune to this type of damage either and on a trip to New Plymouth this week, I noted a number of new potholes had appeared. To be fair, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency which is responsible for highway maintenance has undertaken a very substantial amount of upgrade and maintenance work last summer and has significant amounts planned for the next two summer construction seasons.
Additional safety project work including the installation of median barriers on SH3 and more roundabouts will add to the spending of the agency over the coming years.
However, the criticisms never stop. At times it must seem to them that they can't win and when it comes to the funding shortfalls, they are definitely severely constricted.
My colleague in New Plymouth, Mayor Neil Holdom, has recently challenged the status quo around the funding shortfall and called for an independent review of the "broken" national road funding model.
Even Waka Kotahi openly acknowledges the fact it has significant funding pressures.
I can't help but chuckle over the irony of this situation. One of the fundamental drivers for the Government's Three Waters Reforms is their unwavering belief that there has been a huge investment deficit resulting in a massive underspend on council-owned water infrastructure, over many years.
If you accept that as a true comment, then it strikes me that the same comment could easily be made about Waka Kotahi's state highway roading infrastructure. Those infrastructure assets are surely suffering from a huge investment deficit as well, aren't they?
Finding a future funding model that is sustainable and provides sufficient revenue is rapidly becoming a growing, more acute problem. The current costs associated with roading capital works, maintenance and safety improvements are escalating at an alarming rate. The inflated prices of construction materials, increased labour costs, the effect of skill shortages and fuel costs are examples of the upward pressures on new contract prices.
Actual contract prices frequently have double-digit percentage increases compared to the budgeted amount for that work, or in simple terms, we aren't getting the same bangs for our bucks. It is not a sustainable situation.
For councils, Waka Kotahi's funding pressures become something of a double-edged sword. That is because they subsidise the money councils spend on local roads, which in the case of the Stratford District Council is 61 per cent of our overall road network spend.
This is called the Financial Assistance Rate or FAR. If the pot of money that this subsidy is drawn from, shrinks or fails to increase at the same rate as costs do, we start going backwards. Some would argue we have been going backwards for some time. It's hard to argue against this when we consider the sheer volume of road maintenance work, along with the much-needed improvements, that confront us.
I hope Waka Kotahi and the Ministry of Transport take a serious look at the present funding model and come up with an alternative that provides for a long-term, fair and sustainable funding solution.