Work underway on Fiji's crumbling roads
Complaints are going through the roof over Fiji's crumbling roads as people see new work underway.
The head of the Fiji Roads Authority, Neil Cook, says complaints about Fiji's roads have gone through the roof.
The New Zealander who's in charge of Fiji's largest infrastructure project says that's because people can finally see much-needed work being done on the country's crumbling road network.
The government is pouring more than half of its capital spending this year into roads in a bid to grow Fiji's sluggish economy.
Sally Round has been checking out the works underway.
COOK: This is a section that we can save. We can do the patches that need doing and then put a new...
Neil Cook's just a few months into the job at the helm of the Authority.
COOK: Other sections are so bad that we're just ripping them up and turning them into gravel.
This year, it received a half a billion US dollar slice of the government's budget.
COOK: I think they've arrested it just in time. I think if they'd waited another couple of years to do this, it would be an extremely high mountain to climb.
Mr Cook says people's expectations have risen as they see trucks and rollers out busy fixing things. Another reason for high expectations could be that the works are being financed by increased public debt. People's high hopes their neighbourhood will be next have created a communications challenge for the Authority. It replaces the Department of National Roads, which the government abolished, citing incompetence and corruption.
COOK: From 1 January, when the new maintenance contracts kicked off with the NZ companies, the requests for 'When are you getting to my road?' have just gone through the roof, so we're running at about 200 a month now. You know they're absolutely valid because you drive the roads.
Neil Cook says he's now dealing with years of poor-quality road construction, hampered by the lack of a structured renewal programme, funding and the migration of skilled people. He says 200 kilometres of roads need fully rebuilding and 700 kilometres need resealing. And he says it's a tough job to prioritise.
COOK: In some ways it's easy because everything is so bad that it doesn't really matter where you start. But in other ways, that makes it even harder because how do you then assess that need? We have a range of criteria - traffic volumes is an obvious one, the number of people it's servicing, is it a critical tourism route? As I said, in the rural areas, drivers are schools, access to markets.
New asphalt's being laid here in Nadawa, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Suva.
NICHOL: So we've got roads that just haven't been looked after. So we're getting them back to a state where it gives the community safe travel. So it also triggers off the back of some incidents that have happened in here with children, buses and then you join that with high speed. You'll see, this community is very active on the ground - there's a lot of walking, the kids play a lot on the road. Which isn't too dissimilar, but it's definitely increased here.
One of the Authority's contractors, Adam Nichol, points out how schoolchildren are forced to leap down off the the school bus to reach the old road verge.
NICHOL: There have been some close calls. You'll see just earlier there's a low shoulder. So buses are stopping on the road, which then creates a hazard. And then the kids are getting out on to a very low shoulder, so it all combines. The next phase after the drainage that you've seen is the worst pothole sections, so I'm talking about potholes that start joining together and they become just a massive big myriad of potholes. We then fill it with fresh aggregate. We use a big hoeing machine, so it's like a big drum with picks on it.
More than a thousand jobs were lost when the old government department was abolished.
NICHOL: There was an absolute lack of management-level decision-making capability. And not many of the middle management and above have been brought across. From my perspective, the fact that we're delivering means the general public perception is pretty good. There will be people who, for reasons of their own, perhaps they just don't like the government, will want this to fail. So our challenge is to make it work.
Neil Cook says the plan is to get locals trained up and reduce the expat team.
COOK: What we are really, really happy about is that so many of the people, in particular the lower-level workers on the road have been given a chance by the maintenance contractors. They have shown a willingness and an ability to adapt and to learn and to buy into the right way to build and maintain roads. And Fulton Hogan have 150 plus local workers.
He says he's trying to embed strong tendering and procurement systems and contribute to a change of culture, which is mostly to do with a lack of knowledge around tendering.
COOK: We can assist in other areas outside of roading with not a lot of effort. The systems that we're developing and will be embedding in Fiji, a lot of them can easily be translated into other businesses.
Neil Cook says it will take up to five years before the Authority can clear the backlog of work and get Fiji roads onto a state of equilibrium.
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