Cost blowouts, poorly planned road closures and a crumbling road network in Victoria have come under fire in a speech delivered to road transport delegates gathered at Phillip Island.
The Victorian transport industry found itself at a crossroads according to Roma Britnell, Shadow Minister for Ports and Freight, who, as part of a scathing presentation outlined where the current Victorian Government failed to grasp the challenges the industry faced.
Speaking at the VTA State Conference, Britnell savaged what she observed as a lack of planning on various infrastructure projects and the dire state of the economy, before she announced a new website launched for transport operators to share evidence of problem road networks and damages sustained to their vehicles.
“It’s frightening to know we are paying $10 million a day in interest on the State’s debt alone,” she said.
“An interest bill daily of $10 million that should be building hospitals. That should be going to schools. That should be going to the challenges that we have,” said Britnell.
Britnell called the transport industry the backbone of the nation, highlighting its role in replenishing essential goods at supermarkets when shelves were empty and supermarkets were forced to regulate panic buying.
“You would have hoped at least the Victorian Labor Government would have realised the significance of the transport industry,” she said.
“Yet, what we have is a government that remains focused on themselves. Rather than responsible management, planning or being outcome focused, what we are seeing is more hubris and press releases about removing level crossings and building tunnels,” said Britnell.
Cost blowouts that exceeded $30 billion for projects like the West Gate Tunnel and rail level crossing removals were also being felt by businesses.
Travel times had tripled in some cases because of sudden road closures, often without adequate notice, causing costly delays that could not be factored into crucial tenders.
These disruptions, according to Britnell, caused havoc with the ability of carriers to operate profitably and efficiently when delivering goods to warehouses and to supermarkets.
“I understand that when you do your tenders that you factor in the time that trucks will take to go from ‘A’ to ‘B’ but even with reasonable margins allowing for unforeseen events, road closures that should have been planned by engineers some years ago when shaping up big projects like the West Gate Tunnel are not,” said Britnell.
Not enough was being done to assist with driver training and heavy vehicle licencing according to Britnell, who echoed sentiments shared by other speakers that the current system, as it was modelled on time accrued rather than competency, was not practical for the challenges facing industry.
“It’s an absurdity and it could be changed so very easily,” she said.
Earlier in the day, VTA CEO Peter Anderson, during his opening remarks said it was essential to change the narrative that experience alone makes for a better or safer driver.
“A safer heavy vehicle driver can only be achieved by introducing new laws that requires the training of young people that prioritises skills and training over experience,” he said.
“Often overlooked is that transport operators and industry groups that advocate for reform are the customers of bureaucracy and as customers we have generally been poorly served in recent years,” said Anderson.
While it was generally agreed that there was no better time to attain the reforms that have evaded the transport industry for many years, Britnell viewed the present status quo in Victoria with less optimism.
“I’ve spoken about how easy a task it would be for Government to streamline the permit process and I understand how frustrating it is for you to pay $50,000 and more sometimes on bridge assessments [and] for permits for new trailers yet there has been no progress made in this area,” she said.
“It’s revenue raising. It’s opportunistic. I don’t see the intent from the Victorian Labor Government to use the information to prove the road access or improve the productivity which is what the government has been saying the costs associated with the permit process are used for,” Britnell continued.
“The Government ignores the cost, the administrative burden and the time this process takes. Other states have managed to improve the process but Victoria lags behind.”
Britnell acknowledged that many of the infrastructure projects currently undertaken by the Government, such as North East Link, were necessary.
“But what I don’t understand is why the opportunity to make your industry less inconvenienced are not being harnessed,” she said.
“It appears there is no incentive for the Government to consider your needs despite how well you supported the state of Victoria during the pandemic. The respect this industry deserves has not been returned,” said Britnell.
She said congestion remained a major issue in the cities while in regional areas the ongoing problem was the condition of roads, especially where freight movements were most prevalent.
Britnell described the Government’s lack of understanding regarding the condition of roads “breathtaking” as it ignored how productivity was inhibited with the botched management of the road network demonstrably adding to the already high cost of production and ultimately reduced the state’s international competitiveness.
“The condition of roads caused significant damage to freight vehicles that were used to help export goods from the port,” she said.
Resurfaced regional roads were also deteriorating within weeks of repair and sometimes on main arterials like the Princes Highway and the Hume —important freight corridors.
Britnell’s office and colleagues have already received numerous complaints with photographic evidence made by established transport businesses.
In one case a high tensile steel axle had been severely fractured.
On another, the Z Beam assembly had been ripped from the trailer on a blind bend which forced truck drivers to cross double lines to avoid the knee-deep potholes.
That carriers might illustrate the extra burden of costs in repair and maintenance now demanded by the unsafe operating environment of these roads, Britnell has launched a website to collect data on damages sustained to heavy vehicles and trailers and where, on the road network, it occurred.
“I’ll use this information to demonstrate when it comes to roads and roads maintenance the Government is more concerned about photo shoots in high vis vests and does not care about the state’s economic survival or the safety of all road users,” she said.