By John Peters
Within recent weeks there has been an upsurge of complaints on the state of our road network, with the opposition pointing to neglect by the ministry of infrastructure. The Minibus drivers have also chimed in, asking for some relief through road repairs. This phenomenon of poor road conditions has been with us for several decades across several administrations and the causes are linked to a combination of poor policy and administrative failure within the ministry of infrastructure.
I wish to start first with how policy has affected the ability of the ministry of infrastructure to properly address the road network. Every properly built road has a certain service life, in Saint Lucia it is normally 20 years. This means a properly built road should give you 20 yrs. service before major rehabilitation is required, however, periodic maintenance must be pursued in that design life period. It therefore means that the recurrent expenditure allocated to the ministry must be adequate to provide for that periodic maintenance.
About 15 years ago, we saw the introduction of a policy which allowed Design-Build-Finance projects being funded by a ‘sleight of fiscal hands’. Contractors were being awarded projects which they financed over five years, however, to avoid any impact on the Debt to GDP ratio, these debts were kept below the line and paid from the recurrent expenditure allocations. It therefore meant that at the start of each quarter, a significant portion of the recurrent expenditure allocation was directed to pay these commitments. The technical staff thus had minimal resources to perform the needed maintenance works on the primary and secondary road network.
The situation was further compounded by the fact that these Design-Build-Finance roads were predominantly community roads, and while they were conceived to be politically beneficial, they did not contribute to improvements in the more heavily trafficked roads. However, as we all know money does not solve all the problems. Even if the funds are available, there is still need to understand the modes of failure.
Three principal factors will affect the ability of a road to perform well during its service life. These are (a) road construction quality (b) the environmental factor and (c) the excessive load factor.
Road construction quality
Road construction quality will relate to the choice of materials, the design of the pavement structure and the quality control during the execution of the works. We have suffered from poor road construction quality over the years. Locally mined ‘tif’ and weathered rock from quarries have been used as the primary road construction material. Asphalt has been placed at low temperatures, resulting in early failure of the asphalt surface. Road base material has not been compacted to specification, resulting in early road failure.
The damaging factor of vehicles needs to be fully understood. Most cars in Saint Lucia weigh less than 2,000 lbs, and thus if you are looking at the damaging factor of a car in the simplistic approach of force over area, a woman in a high-heeled shoe may cause more damage to a road than a car. In the design of roads, designers do not consider cars. The real culprits are the trucks. A simple example would be the section of road in Cap Estate, several years ago the government invested large sums in the repair of the main entrance road. The development at Cabot required significant materials for the golf course.
In a matter of weeks, the heavy trucks traversing the road caused unimaginable destruction and a significant investment in a residential road was lost. The small sums the government receives in license fees from these trucks can barely fix one pothole and thus we need to limit the travel of excessive loads on the road network. The fair approach would be for the developer to place a bond with the ministry of infrastructure to cover any damage to the road network and there also has to be legislation to deal with the excessive loading of heavy goods vehicles.
The environmental factor and the excessive load factor
To understand the environmental factor, you need to understand how a pothole is formed. There are two modes of failure: top/down and bottom/up. The failure can start at the top or the failure can start at the bottom. If you drive along the West Coast Road you will observe that the road has generally stood up well over the last 30 years., despite the many potholes. Because asphalt contains bitumen, which is a hydrocarbon, the bitumen undergoes oxidation over time and the asphaltic surface loses – its flexibility and becomes brittle. When this brittleness occurs, the asphalt cracks, and water penetrates and over time a pothole is formed. The West Coast Road is a classic case of top/down failure, which could have been prevented by an overlay of asphalt some years ago which would have extended its life.
To understand bottom/up failure you have to look at the section of the Castries inner relief road from the Bridge by the Port to Manoel Street. You will see water has entered the base of the road, weakening the base and the resultant failure from the bottom to the top of the road. This section of the road has all the facets of failure, poor construction practices during construction, the environmental factor of water ingress and excessive load factor.
So how do we move forward, these are my recommendations:
a. The government takes a loan and bring these Design-Build-Finance projects above the line and free-up the recurrent expenditure allocation for road repairs.
b. The ministry of infrastructure goes back to the development of the micro-entrepreneurs in rod construction and create this pool of road repair contractors.
c. The ministry of infrastructure develop a National Drainage Programme, which will create significant economic activity and halt the environmental factor in road deterioration.
d. As standard procedure, the technical staff must present the reasons identified for road failure as part of the internal process in preparing quarterly programmes.
e. The ministry moves away from the practice of consultants including lavish vehicles in the tender documents for their use. The country has lost millions due to this practice.
f. The ministry creates its specifications for road construction in Saint Lucia, which must be included in tender documents. It is inconceivable that if you travel from the East Coast Road – Millennium Highway – Gros Islet, you will be driving on three different pavement structures designed by consultants.
My most pleasant memories are found in the time I spent at the ministry some 34 years ago, so I wish them well in this difficult period.