A streetwise view of roadworks

Ranier Fsadni

In the face of considerable public scepticism, the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects, Ian Borg, has pledged that in seven years all the roads in Malta will have been surfaced. The budget has been reported as being €700,000 although the minister was guarded, in one interview, when asked for assurances that there would be no significant cost over-runs. What he was positive about was that the roads could indeed all be done in the time period. He cited two factors in favour of his optimism. First, Maltese contractors would be able to subcontract work to foreign firms – thus expanding the base of human resources and equipment. Second, the government will be setting up a focused management team with the task of coordinating and implementing the project within the stipulated deadlines and up to the expected standard.

The point of this blog-post is not to join in the scepticism or the cheerleading. It’s to show just what might happen during roadworks, despite the best intentions and perhaps even the best teams. Money, human resources and a focused management team – the minister’s key factors – are just not enough.

All I have space for is one homely example – so homely I’ve been able to observe it from, quite literally, the doorstep of my home. I live off a 400-metre street in an urban village core. In the first week of May, we the residents were unexpectedly promised that the street would be re-surfaced – complete with upgrade of drains and a new pavement on one side of the street – with very little disruption.

That was then. We are now entering the fourth month of our street looking like a war zone. A fourth month of dust, imprecations, Maltese black humour, whispers about the contractor, and considerable inconvenience (such as periods within these four months when car-owners could not park in their own garages).

Is it anyone’s fault that there has been considerable delay? Fault – perhaps not. It depends on whom you listen to, but I’m going with no-fault delays. But there are reasons, and they’re not unusual.

A set of war-time shelters have been discovered (or re-discovered, since many old-time residents knew about them). So the work couldn’t get done until a decision was taken – by a different branch of government – and then communicated on what could and should be done about them. In Malta, so rich in archaeological heritage, such a discovery is not an unusual problem.

The drains also offered a set of problems. According to the contractor, he had to wait for one and a half months for a decision.

Meanwhile, the local council has had to withstand the well-meant complaints, advice and sheer pressure from the residents. Perhaps more than just the residents. Given the impossibility of everyone being able to park in the street, some of the problems generated in our street have had to be shifted onto other streets.

What does this micro-example demonstrate? After all, a street is not a road. Streets have challenges that roads do not, and vice-versa. But there is considerable overlap.

Archaeological remains have been discovered in the process of roadworks, which also raise issues concerning water supply and electric cables.  Roadworks create inconveniences that cascade to areas not immediately touched by the project. And political pressure by voters inevitably follows, to modify, cancel or somehow disrupt the well-laid plans of experts.

The minister’s three factors – money, resources and management – do not address the ‘expected surprises’ that any roadworks plan is bound to have. Different ministries, and perhaps even different combinations of ministries, will need to be involved. The team can be a crack commando unit of the art of management – but it will depend on every other branch of government, which might not be as well-managed or focused, or simply have its own list of priorities.

Unsurprisingly, transport – at the heart of what joins us up as a mobile society – needs joined-up government to be improved and reformed, not just a management team. We need a reform of governance itself.