Poorly maintained roads and wild weather are proving an expensive combination for businesses and motorists hit by costs associated with crumbling highways.
Transport agency Waka Kotahi says a climate change adaptation plan to deal with the growing frequency of extreme weather will be out before the end of the year, but it can’t come fast enough for those hurting financially from road closures, vehicle damage caused by substandard maintenance, and massively increased drive times.
The trucking industry argues a lot more money needs to be spent on overcoming the “maintenance mountain” as operators struggle with fall out from the latest weather onslaught, rostering extra drivers to cover lengthy detours.
The tourism industry is also suffering and Active Adventures chief executive Wendy van Lieshout has budgeted $20,000 this year to cover potential disruptions from climate change, such as road closures.
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In 2019 Active Adventures spent about $16,000 chartering aircraft to rescue 10 hiking groups caught out by flood-related closures of the Waiho and Rangitata bridges.
“We have a team on standby always for what we call ‘plan B’s, which often go to C, D, E, F. We have plans for every eventuality, including bypassing the West Coast if required.”
In the Marlborough Sounds, the recent extreme weather was the worst ever experienced by Te Mahia Bay Resort owners Jann and Trevor Hook in 30 years.
They are still recovering from last year’s storm damage, and have no idea when roads will be passable enough for guests to get in after last week’s multiple slips, some of them hundreds of meters long.
The resort buildings, able to accommodate up to 70 people, are undamaged, and Trevor Hook says he is not yet sure whether business interruption insurance will cover the loss of income if the road closures are prolonged because they are still accessible by boat.
“Ninety-percent of our customers drive in, so we’re going to have to change our strategy.”
Poorly maintained roads are hitting private motorists in the pocket too with one Taranaki driver copping a $5600 repair bill after hitting a pothole in the dark.
Cambridge man Malcolm Hazelton is seeking compensation from Waka Kotahi over a $720 bill for replacing a tire and fixing a damaged wheel rim, and panel work on his car after hitting a deep pothole near Atiamuri on the way back from a family holiday in July.
“It was so big I couldn’t avoid it. If I swerved right I would have gone into oncoming traffic.”
He counted 13 other cars pulled over on the same stretch of road with similar damage. “Some had stuffed both the front and back wheels.”
Waka Kotahi spokesperson Andy Knackstedt says that while complaints about vehicle damage caused by poor road conditions are investigated to see if there were exceptional circumstances that “may trigger other obligations,” the only payouts he could recall were for damage caused by loose stones as a result of sealing work not being up to standard.
AA spokesperson Dylan Thomsen says 68% of AA members surveyed about transport issues this year were concerned about potholes and the quality of road surfaces, up from 55% in 2018.
He points out vehicle kilometers traveled were 40.5 billion in 2010 and 48 billion in 2019, and in the decade to 2020, kilometers traveled by heavy vehicles had risen by 20%, so wear and tear had risen at a time maintenance levels had been lower.
“To be fair, the Government did increase the amount of funding available for maintenance by $500m for the three years up until 2024, but we still think more is needed to avoid our road quality continuing to deteriorate.”
Repair bills are also mounting for bus and trucking operators – $500 for a new truck tire and $3500 to replace a double windscreen in a coach, never mind repairs to realign wheels and fix suspension.
Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting NZ chief executive Nick Leggett says over the five years to 2020 there had been a 55% increase in maintenance costs for line haul operators.
“We had instances in Taranaki recently where trucking operators have lost two wheels [at once] in large potholes on State Highway 3.”
National Carriers Association chief executive James Smith says recent road closures at the top of the South Island meant a freight shuttle which used to make multiple trips a day between Blenheim and Nelson took a whole day to do a single trip via the Lewis Pass.
The extra costs associated with such long detours are heaping more financial pressure on already stressed company owners, some of whom are back behind the wheel to cover driver shortages.
“We have picked up a strong increase in calls from operators concerned about their viability. Straw plus camel is approaching many.”
Smith says there is no quick fix for decades of under-investment, especially since contractors are also finding it hard to find staff.
“You can’t just pluck a whole pile of workers out of this region to go help one over here because every single region has a stretch of road that’s falling apart.
“It’s going to be a long haul.”
With 93% of freight moved by road and 33,000 trucks nationally, Smith says building roads with a more substantial base layer, such as that used on Transmission Gully and the Waikato expressway, should be considered for other key corridors because adverse weather is going to become the norm.
National land transport fund spending on emergency work to state highways and local roads is provisionally budgeted at $158m this year, almost $33m more than last year, and could well go higher given the recent damage.
Between 2018 and 2021, Waka Kotahi recorded seven weather events where repairs cost between $15m and $50m, compared with just two such events on that scale over the previous five years.
The transport agency says its climate change adaptation plan, Tiro Rangi, will set priorities for creating a more resilient road network better able to handle an expected escalation in extreme weather, and natural hazards such as rockfalls, earthquakes and landslips.
A profile of the roading network done in mid-2020 identified 380 risks, 40 classed as extreme and 143 as major.
Statistics showed the top five regions in terms of risk were all in the South Island. Otago topped the list with 2 minor, 27 moderate, 19 major and 6 extreme risks, while at the other end of the spectrum the Gisborne region had only two moderate risks.