SA National Roads Agency has grand plans to upgrade SA’s road network

Government is finally putting resources aside to address the chronic backlog and poor state of repair of SA’s roads. It’s predicted that about 40% of the country’s critical road network will reach the end of its structural life within the next five years.

The budget of the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral), which looks after national and toll roads, has accelerated from R2,1bn in 2005/2006 to a projected R11,5bn in 2009/2010. Altogether, national treasury has budgeted R62bn to be spent on roads over the next three years.

Last year the SA Institute of Consulting Engineers (Saice) published a report card on the country’s infrastructure and gave national roads a C grade and all other roads a D grade. Saice said inadequate funding and management systems had led to maintenance neglect.

SA has about 370 000 km of national and regional roads and a further 17 000 km of urban streets, which, according to Saice, carry a replacement value of R200bn and R60bn respectively. However, just 16 000 km – the part of the network looked after by Sanral – carries 70% of all SA’s road freight.

The assets under its care are expected to grow to 20 000 km by 2008, almost triple what it oversaw when the agency was created in 1998.

The cost of maintaining or repairing a road increases exponentially if it is left to deteriorate.

Sanral is confident that the increased budgets and the sophisticated asset management techniques available to it will prevent widespread failures of the road network. But Koos Smit, Sanral’s engineering executive, says backlogs and inconsistencies between national and provincial departments make the agency’s work more difficult.

Added to this, he says, the 2010 Fifa World Cup has spawned a multitude of new road projects. “SA doesn’t spend anything for years and years and then in three years we want to spend it all,” Smit says.

The result is shortages of crushers, bitumen and cement, and increasingly expensive steel and labour in the mad rush to meet 2010 expectations. He predicts that in some instances prices on contracts will go up as much as 100%, though the average escalation will be between 30% and 50%.

Sanral finance director Inge Mulder says it can’t all be blamed on 2010 – the economy is running strongly, she says – but cost escalations are a concern. “In the past we would have as many as eight companies tendering on a project; now we get about two,” she says, “and you wouldn’t believe the margins they are charging.”

Delays in getting regulatory approval, mostly because of environmental impact studies, are also proving expensive. For example, the N17 between Springs and Ermelo has been waiting four years to get the go-ahead. The current cost is projected to be R1,4bn, more than double the initial R700m price tag.

Intensity of road use varies greatly in SA. The country’s busiest freeway, the Ben Schoeman, carries about 120 000 vehicles between Johannesburg and Pretoria every 24 hours. With about 700 000 new cars on SA’s roads every year, it is little wonder that the network is taking strain.

The failure of Spoornet to cater to the economy’s growth has also resulted in a great migration of freight from rail to road. Road carries 82% of the freight transported between Johannesburg and Durban. Two decades ago this proportion was the reverse.

Sanral is resorting to technology to regulate the ever-increasing flow of traffic. Part of the Ben Schoeman highway is being used as a trial site for the department of transport’s (DoT) intelligent transport system (ITS), which is managed by Sanral.

Launched in September last year at a cost of R80m, the ITS consists of a series of 50 closed-circuit TV cameras and electronic notice boards. The idea is to give drivers better information about traffic conditions to cut travel time and improve safety. For example, the electronic boards will warn motorists entering a blind corner whether there is a build-up of traffic ahead.

During peak periods the shoulder lane may be used. Any accidents are picked up by camera and emergency services are co-ordinated from the banks of screens in the ITS control room.

DoT claims that the system has been successful in cutting travel times between the two cities. The project has a five-year test period before a decision is made to extend the technology to other cities.

The ITS project is one of two big projects in Gauteng. The second, the Gauteng Freeway Project (GFP), is Sanral’s most ambitious to date, adding 300 km of toll roads, mostly between Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Mulder says the budget for this project is between R10bn and R15bn and will be funded through bond issues. Sanral has three corporate bonds which trade on the Bond Exchange of SA.

She says public input on the GFP project will be sought between September and next January, after which the environmental impact assessment should begin. “Hopefully the first tenders can go out late next year,” Mulder says. Project completion is scheduled for 2013.

Sanral says the bulk of future national road network expansions will be financed using the toll road model, as a result of budget constraints. Sanral administers some of the toll roads and has concessioned others to three private-sector consortia over the past decade.

Smit says that over the next five years Sanral will build 300 km of new national toll roads and upgrade a further 180 km and turn them into toll roads. Projects include the PWV 9, parallel to the Ben Schoeman, and a new Johannesburg airport link road, the N13. Longer-term plans include the Polokwane ring road, a Nelspruit bypass and the contentious N2 Wild Coast toll road.

PUBLICATION: Financial Mail
AUTHOR: Nicky Smith
DATED: 10th June 2007