Failing infrastructure puts the economy, and people, at risk.

More than a quarter of South Africa’s national and provincial roads are beyond repair, with a third more that need urgent attention.

New research commissioned by the Automobile Association of South Africa reveals that road conditions across the country have deteriorated sharply in the last decade, putting motorists and the economy at risk.

Provincial roads, in the worst shape by far, require either extensive maintenance or total reconstruction.

Road Conditions and Funding 2008: A 20-year Review of National and Provincial Roads in South Africa was commissioned by the AA and revealed that:

  • North West has the worst road conditions in SA and has deteriorated the most in the past 10 years;
  • Western Cape has the best;
  • Free State has the highest maintenance backlog; and
  • KwaZulu-Natal spent the most on roads last year.

Road specialists have warned that poor road conditions, including dangerous potholes spread across the country’s roads, could cost motorists a staggering R20-billion a year in accidents and damages.

And if left to decay to destruction, they predict taxpayers could end up forking out R520-billion to reconstruct roads that have failed.

About 70% of roads in North West are in urgent need of repair, compared to 35% in KZN, 32% in the Free State, 30% in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, 21% in Gauteng, 17% in the Northern Cape, 16% in Mpumalanga and 8% in the Western Cape.

The AA study, conducted by civil engineer and roads specialist Dr John Sampson, said the road maintenance backlog was estimated at R100-billion, of which R95-billion was for provincial roads.

Sampson said a seal every seven years, rehabilitation every 20 years, ongoing and routine grass cutting, drain and culvert clearing, and patch and crack sealing would be needed to keep a road in good condition.

About R32-billion would be required a year for national and provincial roads. Current expenditure is about one quarter of that figure, the study revealed.

“It is much less costly to maintain roads than to rehabilitate them,” said Sampson this week. He said a road not maintained would become a hazard after about 10 years and be unusable after 14 years.

Apart from direct maintenance costs, Sampson said, poor roads had a negative impact on the operating costs of a vehicle, including fuel, maintenance, delays and crashes.

Eddie Pullen of Continental Tyres SA noted a dramatic increase of 160% in pothole-related complaints on passenger vehicle and van tyres between 2004 and 2005. Since then, there had been a 30% increase.

Sampson added: “If a road is badly maintained, it is less safe. People swerve to avoid potholes, they drive on the wrong side of the road, they brake suddenly because there’s a hole in front of them. So your crash statistics go up.

“Investors will look at the state of the roads and decide not to invest because they can’t get their vehicles in and out safely and that will affect the economy in a particular area.”

Major contributing factors to bad roads are high traffic volumes, high rainfall and flooding, and overloaded heavy vehicles.

Gary Ronald, the AA’s public affairs manager, said: “Our rail network cannot supply industry as efficiently as road freight can and that’s why there has been a major shift from trains carrying goods to trucks carrying goods,” he said. South Africa has one of the highest permissible vehicle weight limits in the world at 56 tons, said Ronald.

Dr Malcolm Mitchell, executive director of the South African Roads Federation, said by world standards SA roads were very poor. He blamed the situation on a lack of adequate professional capacity and expertise within the provincial roads departments. “I think the road authorities need to look at the privatisation of the maintenance of the road network because I don’t think they have the capacity to handle this major problem,” said Mitchell.

Louw Kannemeyer from the SA National Roads Agency Limited said the bulk of SA’s road network was constructed during the ’60s and ’70s and had a design life of 20 to 30 years. “At the same time, the traffic volumes on our roads have increased substantially. The severe shortage of technical engineering skills and funding within government has resulted in the sorry state of SA roads,” he said.

He said the worst performing provinces were generally in the country’s “wetter areas” and also tended to have higher traffic volumes because of increased economic activity.

Petrus Siko, spokesman for the North West Department of Transport, Roads and Community Safety, acknowledged that the province’s roads were in a serious state of disrepair. He said there was not enough money to fix all the potholes and maintain roads timeously. – mthethwab@sundaytimes.co.za