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IEPNG President: Road costs inflated, technical staff not being trained anymore

A Papua New Guinean civil engineer has given a depressing outlook on the state of roads in the country pointing out that costs are inflated because of bad engineering practices and poor accountability.

Brian Alois, who spoke in his capacity as the President of the Institution of Engineers PNG, showed costs had risen as the pre-construction investigation and assessment decreased over the last 20 years.

Alois, who is one of several senior government engineers in Papua New Guinea, showed examples of cost inflation that confirmed public criticisms that government contracts were costing too much and that the quality of service had dropped.

In 1994, the Malahang Back Road in Lae, between the Industrial Centre and Telikom turnoff cost K100,000 per kilometre to build. In 2004, the Vanimo-Wutung section of the coastal highway cost the government K140,000 per kilometre.

Today, the average cost of building a road is between two and three million kina per kilometre.

The Milfordhaven Road in Lae, a short stretch of concrete from a roundabout to the main wharf to snack bar, cost the government K10 million despite the fact that little else was done apart from digging up the pavement, and replacing it with a stabilised base course and capped off with concrete. The existing road profile remained the one constructed earlier by Barclay Brothers.

The other big spending was K77 million for a 300 kilometre stretch in Port Moresby which drew strong public criticism.

“The rates are being dictated to us by the contractors and we do not have mechanisms in place to verify these rates. The technical properties were not investigated. The lack of competency is costing a lot. For example, companies have five people doing the job of one person. Our maintenance model is expensive. We can’t afford our current model. That is why we need to build up local contractors. We can’t have overseas companies build a road and leave it to us to maintain. It is too expensive.”

Brian Alois’ comments touch only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of road maintenance and construction problems in Papua New Guinea.

Over the last 40 years, Papua New Guinea’s road system has been allowed to deteriorate to a point where it has become painfully expensive to fix.

Against a total annual national budget of K14 billion, Works Secretary, David Wereh, says at least K4 billion is needed to get all the roads into good working order.

“Between 2012 and 2017, Government spent K3.8 billion against a planned budget of K5 billion,” says Works Secretary, David Wereh. “Even with that kind of spending, we have fixed only 30 percent of our problems.”

Wereh adds that the current resource envelope does not allow Papua New Guinea to build and maintain roads. In total, the country has a total of 30,000 kilometres of national, provincial and district roads. Of these, about 9,000 kilometres are National Roads. From this, approximately 50 percent are known as Priority Roads.

“We have done 1,200 of these priority roads. It will cost K64,000 per kilometre per year, just to carry out routine maintenance alone. And we would need at least K300 million annually for this activity.”

Both Wereh and Alois are dealing with a legacy of bad government decisions in the past.

The removal of the construction and maintenance function from the Works Department in the 1990s resulted in the increased dependence on the profit-driven private sector.

Funding to the Works Department was cut. The Works camps were removed. Training of skilled personnel by the Works Department stopped. The cost of road maintenance rose and the efficiency dropped.

Brian Alois says Papua New Guinea’s education system, over the last 20 years, has focused on producing more engineers with degrees and less on technicians who play a crucial role in the actual road building. Engineers design and plan, while foremen and supervisors build roads.

“There are no schools that train the foremen, the grader operators and other skilled workers.”

With the end of the National Planning Consultative Summit in Lae, the vicious equation of bad roads, low agricultural production and export figures has again been highlighted.

Alois says unless the Works Department does something now, the same problems will be confronted next year and the year after.

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