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Infrastructure due for overhaul

Tracy Burrows

An efficient road transportation infrastructure does not come cheap. Maintenance, management and upgrades require budgets of billions.

This year's allocation, says the Automobile Association, amounts to around R18-billion, which is supposed to maintain South Africa's roughly 750 000km of proclaimed roads and fund new road networks. The government's new S'hamba Sonke roads maintenance programme, launched last year, has ring-fenced an allocation purely for roads maintenance, with R6.4-billion allocated this year, R7.4-billion for 2012/2013 and R8.2-billion by 2014.

Unforeseen events like this month's flooding in vast areas of the Eastern Cape, which took with it expensive tracts of national road, eat into maintenance budgets and impact on businesses and citizens in the affected areas.

With budget allocated — of necessity — to the most pressing issues, roads are deteriorating across the country. Gauteng alone has estimated that 30% of its provincial roads are in poor or very poor condition – in the country's economic powerhouse. The impact of poorly maintained roads in other provinces is being felt too: farmers report increased production costs, isolated hotels close down due to a lack of access roads and the road death toll mounts, some of this due to deteriorating roads.

The defence force was this month put on standby to assist as matrics began writing their final exams: the basic education department said it may need help to get exam papers to their destinations in rural areas, and to get students to exam centres. Last year, flooding hampered students' efforts to get to their exam centres, and one student had to be airlifted by helicopter to write an exam, Minister Angie Motshekga said.

The South African National Roads Agency, which develops and maintains the national road network, recently signed a partnership with Map IT to use information from its Speed Profile solution in planning road maintenance and development. Map IT's operations manager, Trevor Morgan, says Speed Profile takes a snapshot of traffic in key areas every five minutes to build a knowledge base of traffic flows.

In three years of monitoring these flows, Morgan has seen the situation on Gauteng's major roads improving significantly as a result of the pre-2010 World Cup upgrades. Other areas are not so fortunate, he says, as budgetary, logistical and geographical issues stand in the way of road infrastructure expansion.

"The solution is more affordable, reliable and widespread public transport, which is why the Rea Vaya bus rapid transit system events are so sad," Morgan told the Mail & Guardian, referring to a Rea Vaya bus drivers' strike this month that left up to 35 000 commuters stranded.

Added to the challenges facing road transport, the air, rail and maritime transport sectors are feeling the pinch of increasing operating costs and growing capacity demands.

The government has allocated R4-trillion for infrastructure development over the next 15 years. President Jacob Zuma said R845-billion would be pumped into infrastructure development projects over the next three years. Although the transport sector is not the only area to be covered in the programme, it features high on the agenda.

At the launch of 2012 Transport Month, the Minister of Transport Ben Martins said: "There are still many South Africans outside the modern transport networks. They still depend on untarred roads and have to walk long distances to access public transport. The rail infrastructure also remains largely concentrated in metropolitan areas, where supply is above demand. Until we have responded adequately to the daily realities of our fellow citizens, there is no reason for complacency."

He also commented on the aviation industry's contribution to South Africa's efforts to position itself as a preferred investment destination, saying: "The efforts by [state-owned enterprises] such as the Airport Company of South Africa and the Air Traffic and Navigation Services to find new investment destinations outside the country will depend on the work that they do at home to ensure a safe and reliable aviation transport environment."

"At the same time, the South African Maritime Service Agency should continue work with other state agencies such as South African Navy to promote the safety of individuals and property at sea, while the department develops a medium to long term maritime industrial development strategy."

Martins said: "Almost all sectors of our economy use roads to transport goods across the country. A significant amount of goods are transported by road and this will continue to increase. Until we make necessary interventions, more pressure will be exerted on the current road infrastructure and will lead to further congestion, and consequently the cost of goods and services."

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