Upgrading of rural gravel roads strategy: Department of Transport, Council for Scientific & Industrial Research, and African Access Holding Group briefings

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22 May 2012
Chairperson: Ms N Bhengu (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Transport (DOT) outlined the status of gravel roads in the country, according to provinces. In North West, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Eastern Cape, the percentage of poor and very poor gravel road conditions was extremely high. Members were taken through provincial programmes and challenges to municipalities. Slides of the Soweto gravel road project were shown. Challenges identified included the lack of a constitutional mandate for the DOT to deal with road infrastructure other than national roads, and inadequate funding levels.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) pointed out that the maintenance of gravel roads was costly to the road authority because of the need for ongoing grading and regravelling. It was costly to the producer because of dust and other pollution, damage to vehicles, accidents, and the difficulty of obtaining materials. The briefing looked at the use of chemical stabilisers as a solution. There was a lack of confidence in them, on account of opportunistic marketing without supervision. The briefing gave illustrated examples of what had been achieved through using old gravel roads as a base, and covering them with low volume sealing. Various methods of sealing were discussed. The conclusion was that sealing or surfacing was initially expensive, but was very often a better option than the continuous maintenance of gravel roads. Cost effective rural roads were possible.

African Access Holdings (AAH) indicated how both education and business were compromised by poor rural roads. AAH relied on a subcontractor network to supply books to rural schools. Subcontractors were encouraged to develop their own business, and poor road access impacted negatively on them, as it did on the schools they supplied to.

embers were severely critical of the DOT briefing, and extremely appreciative of the one by CSIR. Members felt that the DOT was not addressing problems of access to schools and clinics in their constituencies. There were accounts of tragedies that had occurred on that account. Members took exception to the fact that the Soweto gravel road project had been chosen as an example, when the Department was supposed to speak to the crisis of rural gravel roads. It was felt that the DOT had brought nothing tangible to the table, and lacked a sense of urgency. There was no strategy or model. Blatant factual inaccuracies in the briefing were pointed out. The DOT had to evaluate the total extent of the problem, and had to look at at the alternatives suggested by the CSIR, and cost them to guide the budget. There were questions about labour absorptive methodologies. It was suggested that cuts be made to the number of departments that had to approve road upgrading initiatives. These could be as many as 27. Members expressed interest in the sealing and chemical stabilisers that the CSIR had dealt with. The Chairperson rebuked the DOT for its failure to utilise the expertise that the CSIR had to offer.

Meeting report

Chairperson's introduction
The Chairperson used the analogy of veins and arteries that carried blood to the body to point out the importance of road networks. With regard to rural gravel road upgrading, she made observations based on oversight visits by the Portfolio Committee to the North West, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. There was no uniform approach to S’hamba Sonke, and a lack of standards for road maintenance. There was excessive use of consultants by the Department of Transport (DOT). Roads to schools and clinics remained poor, which impacted negatively on the service delivery priorities of Government.

Department of Transport (DOT) on the upgrading of rural gravel roads briefing

Mr Prasanth Mohan, DOT Acting Chief Director: Infrastructure Network Management, indicated that the S’hamba Sonke programme was aimed at the maintenance of key arterial routes to support the rural economy, and to improve access to schools and hospitals.

Mr Mohan pointed out that gravel roads required more frequent maintenance than paved roads. He provided figures related to the status quo of roads in the country, according to the paved / gravel classification. He also supplied graphs about the condition of gravel roads according to provinces. There were high percentages of gravel roads in very poor and poor condition, especially in North West, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.

Mr Mohan provided a perspective by the African Development Bank Group. Inter alia it stated that there had been progress in the management of Africa’s trunk road network over the preceding decade, but the process remained incomplete. There was a general lack of local resources to fund rural road maintenance.

Mr Mohan took the Committee through provincial programmes and challenges to municipal programmes. He showed slides of the Soweto gravel road project. He noted that although the DOT did not have a Constitutional mandate to work on road infrastructure, it had begun to manage a ring-fenced Provincial Road Maintenance Grant (PRMG). The level of funding for road infrastructure had been and still was far below what was needed. Money was stretched, rather than effectively utilised, which created more backlogs, rather than addressing existing ones. There had to be increases in municipal budgets, and a new grant for rural road upgrade programmes. Work was in progress to commission a project for the formulation and implementation of a road infrastructure policy.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on the upgrading of rural gravel roads

Dr Phil Paige-Green, CSIR Chief Researcher: Built Environment, set out to look at the the cost, advantages and disadvantages of gravel roads. The CSIR had done past research on the upgrading of rural roads.

Dr Green told the Committee that there were five to six hundred thousand kiliometres of gravel roads in rural and poor areas. Upgrading with chemical stabilisers had been looked at, and sealing options. There had been research on deterioration and loss of gravel in 1982-1989 and a report was published in 1990 (Technical Recommendation for Highways (TRH20: 1990)). The findings were implemented only in the early 2000s.

There were important considerations regarding the material properties and construction of gravel roads. There were drainage problems that led to potholes. Dust caused problems for agriculture. Corrugations caused damage to vehicles. Stoniness was controllable, but if uncontrolled resulted in very rough roads.

The maintenance of gravel roads required grader blading at intervals of one week to five or six months. Periodic regravelling was required. There had to be roadside maintenance management systems. Specialised inputs were required. Skills required had been reduced recently, but sustainability remained a challenge. Gravel tended to be lost and had to be replaced every six to 10 years. Massive amounts of gravel were required. It could fill the Kimberley hole in a matter of months, if gravel had to be consistently replaced across the board. Eventually it became necessary to resort to poorer materials. That led to decreased performance and the need for more frequent grading.

The maintenance of gravel roads required high expenditure. Grading and regravelling were continuous processes. The total cost of construction and regravelling came to a quarter million rand per kilometre. Grader maintenance alone cost R340 per kilometre. Regravelling of 10% of South African roads could come to R6 billion per year. Maintenance fell behind more every year.

Producer costs were also high. There were costs to the road user. Accidents added to cost. There was the time factor, because traffic moved more slowly on gravel roads. There was pollution through gravel washed into rivers, and dust. There were the social costs linked to lack of access to facilities. There was a strong impact on the gross domestic product (GDP). Transported goods were damaged, and so were vehicles. Parts had to be replaced. Deliveries to chain stores like Woolworths had to be on time or be sent back. Materials needed for maintenance could be hard to locate. In rural areas, knowledge of where to dig for materials was disappearing. The present generation no longer had it. There were regulatory requirements. As many as 27 departments had to approve interventions, which could stretch the time needed to build a new road to 18 months.

Dr Green continued that a colleague of his, based in the Western Province, had been allowed to experiment with chemical stabilisers. Namibia had implemented some of the experience gained there. It had led to a change in philosophy. Western Cape roads cost 25% more to build, but money was saved in the long run. Use of the right materials and right construction methods were cost saving. It had turned out that it was actually cheaper to leave a road for two and a half years and then rebuild it.

Sustainability remained a challenge. The CSIR had looked at more than 50 products as alternative stabilisers. Research was seldom sponsored by suppliers. There had been failures. In one instance a private road built for R7 million was generating dust after one week. Then dust palliatives had to be used. Such measures were inexpensive, but had to be used every year.

ément had developed a certification process and a protocol. Products were tested in the laboratory for a certificate to be issued. But thus far only one certificate had been issued. It was for a cement based product with a flexibility additive. Engineers in the provinces would only consider the Agrément certified product. Results obtained from stabilising products had been mixed. There was not much confidence in them. One product had caused stones to be locked in, which meant that they could not be removed after exposure. Bitumen had been used in the Kruger Park, which slowed deterioration but could not stop it. Chemicals could cost as much as paving.

Dr Green said that old gravel roads could be used as a base with a surface on top. The CSIR had been involved in low volume sealed roads since 1989, but the practice had not been disseminated properly. The conservatism of engineers posed a problem. They wanted to avoid risk, and went for expensive options. Currently there were user friendly guidelines that made alternatives more implementable. There were shape and seal methodologies that could bridge the gap between cheap gravel and expensive sealed options. Instruments were available to rapidly determine the strength of a road. Surfacing was expensive as a matter of course, but the least expensive option was not always the best.

In the Kruger Park there had been sand sealing with material taken from flooded rivers, that worked well. Materials obtainable from the roadside had been used with success in Botswana. Local labour could be used for maintenance and to develop skills. There were risks associated with sealed roads. It increased the speed of travel and could lead to more bends, but warning signs or speed bumps could be used for reasons of safety. Low volume sealed roads were preferred to gravel roads by communities.

Dr Green stressed the importance of management systems. Municipal finance management had to be compulsory. Roads had to be included in the asset register, and there had to be regular assessment. Assessment systems had to be simple, roads had to be classified in terms of being good, bad or fair. There had to be management systems for small local authorities. Refinement of design catalogues, technology transfer and publicising of documents were essential. Agr
ément certification of chemical stabilisers had to be increased.

Dr Green concluded that it was impossible to seal all South African roads. Maintenance management of unsealed roads had to improve. Alternative stabilisers had to be considered. It was possible to have cost effective rural roads.

Briefing by African Access Holding Group Impact of Inaccessible Roads Presentation
Mr Gap Maloka, Group Director: Business Development, explained that his organisation supported provincial governments through procurement systems to get books and study materials to schools. It relied on a subcontractor network system. People with vehicles in communities were encouraged to start up a business. It contributed to job creation. People were paid for delivery, and hence road infrastructure problems compromised them. Deliveries had to be on time. Gravel road access to deep rural schools was a problem in the provinces. Some schools could really only be accessed with 4x4 vehicles, and things were worse in the rainy season. He cited an example where a courier had to park his vehicle and walk to the school to get help in collecting the books. There were replacement costs due to replacement of tires, vehicle damage and accidents. He advised that the CSIR research be studied.

Ms N Ngele (ANC) noted that the Minister had said that roads were a priority but nothing was happening in rural areas. There were no roads. The means to upgrade rural roads were there, but nothing was happening. It was impossible to drive to rural clinics. The Department had to prioritise. If roads were expensive, something had to be done. The South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) had tried to build side lanes on Eastern Cape roads, but those had been damaged by trucks. On the N2 in the Eastern Cape one could not drive because of damage caused by trucks. Pot holes caused accidents. Locals knew the roads, but it was dangerous to drive by night or in the rain.

Ms D Dlakude (ANC) said that a new car would last only three months on rural roads. Policies needed to be looked at again. They were not assisting rural development. Policy change was needed especially with regard to budget allocation. Budgets were still allocated according to population. Capacity in municipalities was a challenge. Some areas had no road access at all. She said that she did not understand the 200 cars per day benchmark rule.

Mr G Krumbock (DA) appreciated the passion shown by Dr Green for his field of expertise. He remarked that it was probably not possible to seal half a million kilometres of South African roads. He asked what Dr Green meant by sealed roads. For him it meant concrete type sealing, asphalt, chip and spray, thin skin roads or stabilised surfaces.

Mr Krumbock asked about bituminous alternatives and sand-sealing.

Mr Green replied that sealing referred mostly to bituminous surfaces or concrete. A sand seal consisted of bitumen with sand and chalk.

Mr L Suka (ANC) questioned the use of Soweto as an example of road upgrading. Soweto was not rural. It did not go to the heart of the problem. He objected that the map of the status quo of South African roads was unclear. There was no explanation of what the red and blue arteries actually meant. He approved of the principle of ring fencing for road upgrading. But there had to be recommendations on how to move with speed, with time frames. There was a lack of integration between the three spheres of Government. Currently there was no sense of urgency. More robust strategies were needed.

Mr Mohan replied that Soweto had been chosen as an example of the importance of political will. For something to happen, there had to be decisions at the political level. Such decisions had been taken about Soweto roads, and funding had been obtained.

Mr Suka remarked that the practice of road upgrading initiatives having to be cleared by 27 departments, was an impediment to progress. Cuts had to be made. The Department of Transport had to come up with tangible things. Mr Suka remarked about skills development that people left the system and returned as consultants. Skills development was very slow. 70% of the Eastern Cape was rural. There had to be a means to measure progress with roads, so that the problem could be dealt with more systematically.

Mr I Ollis (DA) remarked that the CSIR presentation had been excellent. It showed what could be achieved. He had been shocked by the poor quality of the DOT briefing. It was actually stated on page 6 that there were nine metros in South Africa. Further on Mohale City was classified as a metro. Those were crude factual errors. The Soweto road upgrading had not even been a DOT project, it had been undertaken by the City of Johannesburg, and it was unacceptable for that to be used as an example. It had to be clear what the DOT was doing about rural roads on a yearly basis. The total extent of the problem had to be visible. If 4 000 kilometres had to be rebuilt, it had to be costed. The DOT had to look at the costing of alternatives to guide the budget. He asked if that was being done at all. The size of the problem had to be known.

Ms N Mdaka (ANC) said that she was worried about the Chairperson. Her sleep would be interrupted by the pothole song. The Committee was looking at disaster. The community was being failed. There was silence about accidents. The DOT would be singing the same song at the end of the current term. It was painful and hurting. Potholes had become a nightmare. The DOT was failing the Committee and themselves.

Mr P Mbehle (COPE) asked about absorptive labour methodologies. He asked how the Department made sure that they were implemented. The community had to be taken into confidence. There had been challenges in scenarios where labour intensive companies had been used. He objected to the fact that the Free State was not on the provincial summary. It was his place of origin and close to his heart. Like others in the Committee, he was from a rural background.

Mr Mbehle agreed that the CSIR presentation had been enlightening. He asked why there was little confidence in new products for road upgrading, and reluctance to put them to use.

Mr Green replied that it was the result of bad marketing by non-technical salespeople with little knowledge of the product, who wanted to make quick money. They would dump the product and run, and not be available to supervise during construction.

The Chairperson asked that the DOT bring a strategy to the Committee for upgrading rural gravel roads. There was no strategy to be seen. Either the DOT had none, or it did not understand the problem. The Department had given no perspective on key issues raised by the African Development Bank Group. If other countries wanted to learn from South Africa, the country would be unable to provide the model. It was clear from the summary of provincial programmes on page 14, that there was no national strategy. Each province was doing its own thing. The DOT did not take the Committee seriously when questions were raised. National Assembly questions were important. Ministerial statements were not reflected in the DOT briefing, nor were the State of the Nation Address (SONA) directives. She thanked the CSIR for its presentation. The DOT was unwilling to utilise CSIR expertise. It was hiding behind stipulations such as the 200 cars per day rule; that gave them excuses for not acting. The Committee wanted to see the CFO and the Deputy Director- General responsible for gravel road upgrading. It had to be known how many schools and hospitals were inaccessible.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.


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