By PAMA I. ANIO
“I WANT to see it possible to drive from Vanimo to Alotau, and while this is a lot of work, we will make it happen.”
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill made the bold prediction on Sept 4 when announcing sweeping changes to the management and delivery of Papua New Guinea’s road network.
O’Neill has a knack for making things happen. In fact, he has a proven track record of initiating and delivering high impact road infrastructure development since assuming office in 2012.
This impressive record will show that there has been a massive increase in road investment funding of almost K4 billion on a five-year programme, compared to any other previous government.
The O’Neill Government’s key milestone achievements include:
- Upgrading and sealing of 600 km national roads;
- Improvement of 1,200 km of provincial and district roads;
- Rebuilding of 45 km of Lae City roads;
- Completion of Phase 1 of Lae-Nadzab four-lane road from Bugandi Junction to 9-Mile;
- Maintenance and upgrading of 1,000 metres of bridges; and
- Opening up two missing links – East to West New Britain Highway and Bundi (Madang) to Gembogl (Chimbu) Road.
The bridge replacement programme included four bridges in Northern that were destroyed by Hurricane Guba on the Kokoda Highway. One of the new bridges is the 289-metre long Kumusi Bridge, which is the longest double lane bridge in PNG.
There is more than a K1 billion worth of bridge replacement, road maintenance and capital works programmes carried over into the 2018-2023 programme and there are a number major projects ongoing in 2018.
These works include upgrading and sealing of the Kokopau-Buin Road in the Autonomous Bouganville Region, Bulominsky Highway in New Ireland, Ramu–Madang Highway in Morobe and Madang, Hiritano Highway in Central, Enga Highway in Enga, Mendi-Tari Road in Southern Highlands and Hela, Mendi-Tambul Road in Southern and Western Highlands, East Cape Road in Milne Bay, Hula Road in Central and the bridge replacement programme on the Sepik Coastal Highway.
Apart from Lae and Port Moresby city roads, the O’Neill Government has improved roads in provincial centres including Kavieng, Kerema, Kimbe and Wabag.
Work is underway on Phase 2 of the Lae-Nadzab from 9-Mile to Nadzab Airport and the Kagamuga Airport to Mt Hagen City four-lane road.
The massive roads and bridges infrastructure development undertaken by the O’Neill Government since 2012 is unprecedented and unmatched by past governments.
Indeed, O’Neill has achieved much more in the past six years than the total achievements of all his predecessors. And he isn’t done yet.
So what makes this businessman-cum-politician such an effective Prime Minister?
“Prime Minister O’Neill thinks outside the box and walks the talk,” says key strategist and Works Secretary David Wereh.
“He is also passionate and genuine about his role and responsibilities and has his finger on the pulse of government and the nation.”
As PNG celebrates 43 years of nationhood, its chief executive is already charting a new road map, among other new initiatives, to deliver transformational projects such as the road links that will connect the far northwestern border township of Vanimo to the far southeastern tourism centre of Alotau.
Building a road through the mountains and jungles of PNG is a most daunting task and one that not only requires engineering expertise and guaranteed funding but the political will to drive the project.
It is the kind of challenge that most political leaders would rather not face. But PM O’Neill relishes such challenges and has vowed to deliver these transformational road projects that will virtually change the face of rural PNG.
“Roads are the backbone of the nation, and particularly in remote and rural areas, good roads are essential for us to increase living standards. We will build a truly national highway network that will connect major centres on every large island of our nation. We have a clear road transport agenda to increase road connectivity and provide greater access to functional roads around the country,” O’Neill said.
PNG’s road network extends over 30,000km comprising 9,000km of national roads and the remaining 21,000km of provincial and district roads including 1,590 bridge structures.
The road network is classified into national, provincial and district roads: national roads link provincial capitals main population centres while provincial and district roads provide secondary and tertiary links to national highways.
The network has suffered from inconsistent and inadequate funding over the years. Previous government levels of road maintenance and rehabilitation has been in the order of 25-30 per cent of the funds required to sustain serviceability of the road network.
When the O’Neill Government assumed office in 2012, more than 75 per cent of the road network remained in failed and poor condition with a massive maintenance backlog of K3-4 billion.
The deteriorating road conditions has deprived the bulk of the population in the rural and remote areas of accessibility to basic government services such as health and education as well as economic opportunities.
The key challenge for the current government has been to provide an efficient, reliable and high quality land transport system that can support socio-economic development and growth. Road transport alone caters for 80 per cent of passenger and freight demands in PNG.
The road subsector institutional reforms, which will be implemented over a five-year period from 2019 to 2023, are two-fold.
Firstly, to establish a competent and accountable road management programme responsible for the long-term sustainable maintenance of national roads and development of major economic roads of the future.
Secondly, to rejuvenate the Works Department’s Plant and Transport Division (PTD) to deliver efficient and sustainable maintenance of provincial and district roads in cooperation with provincial governments and district authorities.
The current government places priority on provincial and district roads to be effectively maintained and sustained to deliver economic benefits to the bulk of the population.
As PM O’Neill stated, “past governments had neglected and dismantled the Works Plant and Transport Division. This resulted in the almost total collapse in road maintenance programmes in all provinces adding to the ever-increasing maintenance backlog that now stands at an astounding K3 billion. That is why our government will re-establish the Works Plant and Transport Division to ensure provincial and district roads are fully maintained, and that our rural people will have greater access to social services and economic opportunities.”
The first phase of the reforms is to merge the existing road management organisations – Department of Works (DoW), National Road Authority (NRA) and Road Transport Authority (RTA) – into a single road manager which is accountable for the performance of national roads and rural infrastructure and to create an independent PNG road fund for the maintenance of the network.
Key highlights of the road subsector institutional reforms are:
- The NRA Act to be repealed and the NRA to be merged with DoW, under a reorganised Department of Works and Highways (DWH), by the end of 2019, as a first step to establish a single road manager, responsible and accountable for the performance of the national highways and to provide technical and material support to the provincial and district authorities for the maintenance and development of their roads and other rural infrastructure. DWH will manage the planning, design, procurement and implementation of the capital works and maintenance programmes and establish long-term maintenance contracts on 11 key national highways in line with minimum funding required by the National Road Network Strategy. These key roads are: Highlands, Hiritano, Magi, Northern and Kokoda, Enga, Wau-Bulolo, Ramu, Momase Coastal, Sepik, Boluminski and New Britain highways.
- The merger of NRA with DoW will allow the reorganised organisation to focus on both the national and subnational roads and new road management changes, such as long-term road maintenance contracting and capacity building measures, to be introduced over the five-year period before the PNG Highway Authority (PHA) is formed from relevant parts of DWH to manage national highways and the economic corridors.
- The formation of the PHA in 2023 will also include the incorporation of RTA under one road management agency. This is in line with international best practice and it will complete the reform to establish a single road management agency that is fully accountable for the performance of national roads, as well as regulate road users and coordinate development of all roads, to meet the expected quality, safety and environmental standards.
- The remaining parts of DoW, including the provincial works units in the 21 provinces, will continue to maintain engineering and building standards and its focus on supporting the provinces and districts to maintain subnational roads and other rural infrastructure, such as schools, health centres, district offices and markets.
An independent road management fund will replace the current NRA managed road fund and will be managed under the Central Road Board, which is chaired by the Secretary for Transport. Its members will consist of the Secretaries for Works, Treasury, Finance, National Planning and representatives of the business and road user sectors.
Works Secretary Wereh, who will be spearheading implementation of the reforms, says guaranteed funding is key to creating a sustainable maintenance environment.
“As per the National Road Network Strategy, a minimum of K898 million per year over the next five years, starting in 2019, is required to upkeep the national road network on long-term performance-based contracts. As well, a minimum of K87 million per year for the next five years is required to re-fleet the DoW Plant and Transport Division (PTD) units to maintain the infrastructure services in each district,” Wereh said in a statement.
“We are mindful that some provinces and districts have functioning private sector that participate in road and infrastructure maintenance works. We will ensure that our support to the districts does not undermine the private sector. Contractors will continue to be invited to bid for road maintenance works and will be awarded contracts, where they are able to be competitive and offer value for money.
“The Government’s annual budget is not sufficient to support PNG’s road maintenance needs. If we are to properly maintain our roads in good condition, as well as expand the network to give access to our rural communities, we need to consider other sustainable funding sources.
“The most equitable and sustainable way to fund our road is to recover the cost of road maintenance from road users. Roads cost money to build and maintain and road usage causes wear and tear on our roads. It is only reasonable that those who use roads should help pay for the service and the cost of its maintenance. Road user charges are administered by many countries to help pay for the cost of maintaining their road networks. DoW will make a further submission to NEC for the establishment and administration of road user charges, as part of the reforms.”
Significant potential benefits are attainable with the comprehensive and effective implementation of the reforms. These include:
- Increased revenue from user charges, starting with K100m in 2020 and increasing to K900m in 2025;
- Net savings in administration costs, starting with K27m in 2019 and increasing to K83m in 2025; and
- Savings in maintenance costs, starting with K50m in 2019 and increasing to K550m in 2015.
Secretary Wereh says the reforms will drive the Government’s agenda of increasing road connectivity and providing greater access for the bulk of the people in the rural areas.
“I am somewhat saddened but relieved that DoW will be undergoing these institutional reforms that will radically change the way we manage and deliver roads in PNG. We need to become more efficient and effective, and be smarter in the way we think and perform.”
Secretary Wereh attributes the reforms to PM O’Neill’s visionary leadership and vows to help realise his dream of transforming the country through greater road connectivity and accessibility.
- The author, a former editor of The National is a freelance journalist.