Reconstruction of main national roads requires systematic approach

Toomas Mattson | 12/13/2013 | 11:00 AM

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TALLINN, 12 December 2013 – The audit conducted by the National Audit Office indicates that the activities of the Road Administration from 2002-2012 were not sufficiently well planned, which means that many construction works included in the road maintenance plan were not carried out and that ca 50% of planned works were completed from 2010-2013. Renovated objects generally complied with the established terms of reference, but there were many errors in construction projects and the quality of road renovation supervision was inconsistent. The results of the work carried out by the Finnish experts that the National Audit Office used in its audit highlight the need to change the Estonian design standards and make them considerably more similar to those of the Nordic countries. The National Audit Office is of the opinion that the Road Administration, which agreed with most of the conclusions made on the basis of the audit, has started making the necessary changes in cooperation with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.
The National Audit Office considers it a problem that in road maintenance, the state has replaced tax revenues to a significant extent with European Union support, but this does not help achieve the main goal of the support – to accelerate the renovation of roads.

The problems in the implementation of road maintenance plans have emerged despite the fact that the overall level of the Road Administration’s budget corresponded almost always to road maintenance plans during the audited period. However, the problems in the adherence to road maintenance plans are not surprising: when we look at the final cost of the projects, we see that most projects ended up costing considerably more than expected at the time the plan was prepared – the cost of the project usually went up by 50%, but it was not rare for the price of projects to multiply. This is why work started on fewer sites than initially planned. However, the Road Administration has also renovated roads outside the road maintenance plans on the basis of the actual need of the road surface for repairs.
The National Audit Office finds that most of these cost increases cannot be justified with the overall price increase, as construction price indexes did not increase that much even at the height of the boom.
The Road Administration found it difficult to present the National Audit Office with a comprehensive overview of the renovations carried out on main roads. For instance, they told the National Audit Office that the total amount spent on repairs from 2008-2012 was 220 million euros, but when the data were checked it became evident that the actual amount was over 100 million euros more (335 million).
The audit indicates that the attempts of the Road Administration to improve the quality of road design and supervision are appropriate and necessary, because there is no reason to be satisfied with the present quality. The National Audit Office took a closer look at ten 3 km main road sections (incl. their design, renovation and supervision) which were renovated between 2002 and 2012 and which are located in different regions of Estonia. Many errors were found in almost all of the larger main road renovation projects, which led to the need to perform extra work. In some cases the errors were blatantly obvious, e.g. the embankment of the road in the design was narrower than the bridge already located on the section. In another place, amendment of the design (raising the road surface by 30 cm) was justified with the possible rise of the water level of Lake Peipus half a kilometre away, although there are no known cases of the village situated in this spot between the road and the lake ever being affected by floods.
The National Audit Office does not find it normal that hundreds of remarks are made about the design during construction as a result of calculation errors etc. Very rarely has anyone ever been held responsible for the errors – as far as we know, the Road Administration has only done this once. Supervisors have often been sloppy in their work, the required samples or measurements were often not taken, the measurements frequently failed to reflect the actual situation or permission to continue with the work was given without waiting for results to arrive.
The goal set in Estonia is that the road base should last for 50 years without repairs and the rest of the road (upper layers) for 15 years. Many signs indicate that renovated roads may not last the expected 15 years. The audit sample clearly indicated that the first repairs are done 4-5 years after the completion of renovations.
The National Audit Office finds it is important for the Road Administration to analyse the change in the condition of roads as a whole. This has not yet been done, which is why there is no systematic proven overview of the durability of national roads and the reasons why they fall into disrepair. Ascertaining these reasons is particularly important in the opinion of the National Audit Office, as it would help prevent or reduce the occurrence of problems in the future.
The durability of national roads over time cannot be analysed, as the reliability of the data that characterise the condition of national roads is low and the data incomparable on a year-on-year basis. For example, the National Audit Office analysed all of the main roads that have not been renovated since 2004. The data of the Road Administration suggest that the evenness and rut depth of roads have simply improved of their own accord. Although no significant renovations had been carried out on the reviewed roads, their evenness had improved by 15% on average over five years and the depth of the ruts had decreased on almost half of the road sections without an obvious reason. The Road Administration was unable to explain the reasons for these anomalies.
The audit carried out by the National Audit Office with the assistance of Finnish road experts revealed that main national roads are generally constructed as required in the design and the necessary strength is usually guaranteed. However, this does not necessarily guarantee the longevity of the road, as on the one hand Estonian road design standards require a considerably weaker surface than Finnish ones, and on the other hand the gap between the two countries is magnified even further by the probably overestimated load capacity of some materials (e.g. the estimated load capacity of limestone in Estonian standards is the same as the estimated load capacity of granite in Finland).
The fact that single road layers are unevenly laid is a separate problem. The expert analysis indicated that the audit sample did not contain a single road where the thickness of even one layer fit fully into the permitted error range. Road builders often had to increase the thickness of the most expensive (upper) layers to make up for the errors made when the lower layers were laid. As the builder is paid for the site as a whole in road construction, such waste generally occurs on the account of the builder’s profit.
The National Audit Office advised the Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications to also review the general funding principles in cooperation with the Minister of Finance. Namely, calculations show that ca 50% of the intended fuel excise collected by the state is spent on road maintenance, but the law stipulates that this should be 70%. The difference has been covered with European Union grants and large loans.
The National Audit Office is of the opinion that the use of EU grants in such a manner contravenes the complementarity principle pursuant to which grants may only be used if the beneficiary itself cannot find money for the projects. This means that the use of EU grants would only be justified if they were used in addition to said 70%. Neither the Minister of Economic Affairs nor the Minister of Finance considered it necessary to change the present funding model. However, neither commented on the discrepancy with the complementarity principle in their response.
The Road Administration agreed with most of the recommendations made in the audit and noted that the conclusions made by the National Audit Office largely coincide with the conclusions made by the Administration itself and that the implementation of several changes has already started.

Tarmo Olgo, auditor director with the Performance Audit Department, said in commenting on the results of the audit: “The goal of the National Audit Office is not to reproach the Road Administration, but to support the necessary changes that the new management of the Road Administration has initiated in cooperation with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. Since the increase in European Union grants in the last ten-odd years, the Road Administration has been working under considerable time pressure where the goal set at the level of state is to use these huge amounts of money as quickly as possible. On the other hand, there have been big problems in the management of the Road Administration itself, reforming the agency’s internal structure and so on. It is important to leave the ‘act first, think later’ stage and progress to a situation where the condition of Estonian roads is analysed on the basis of a comprehensive picture and reliable data, and clear choices are made for the benefit of the future.”

Background

The state owns over 16,000 km of roads. The National Audit Office audited the renovation of main roads (1,600 km), i.e. funding, road maintenance planning, standards and renovation (design, construction and supervision). Ca 1.2 billion euros has been spent on road maintenance in the last five years.

Toomas Mattson
Head of Communication Service, National Audit Office
+372 640 0777
+372 51 34 900

toomas.mattson@riigikontroll.ee
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  • Posted: 12/13/2013 11:00 AM
  • Last Update: 9/25/2014 2:20 PM
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