Saturday, 14 February 2009

Wasting our money on "waste-a-structure" bike paths

Andrew Bolt has noted that the Woin Swan/KRudd "stimulus package" includes $40 million for bike paths.

Some might think that is a lot of money for bike paths. I've trawled through the comments on Bolt's site, and in amongst the usual anti-bike rants, there is amazement that bike paths should cost anything at all - why surely all you do is mark a lane with paint, and that's it?

Our council developed a bike plan a few years ago. It was costed at $46 million, and like all government projects, I bet it will end up costing 50% more than that.

At present rates of expenditure, it will take our council a century to fulfil the plan. Even if Rudd gave our council the entire $40 million package, it would not complete the plan. Yet there are 150 councils in NSW alone, and perhaps 400 or more across the country.

Assuming there are 400 councils, and that the package is split evenly, they'll get $100,000 each - barely enough to hire a consultant to write a bike plan for those councils that don't currently have one. I doubt this package will result in much asphalt being laid - all it will generate is a stack of paper 40 feet high with lots of pretty photo mock-ups and coloured graphs and maps - and obligatory photos of multi-cultural children playing together. And those plans will not be written by blue collar construction workers in need of a pay packet - they'll go to people in suits earning $120 an hour.

The following photos show part of that plan being implemented - an extension of the bike/pedestrian path around The Bay. There isn't enough road for council to simply paint a white line to create a bike lane, so what they've done is rip up the old, narrow footpath on the left and they're building a much wider path that will essentially hang out over the cliff where all that bush is.

You can see from this photo that the budget is being spent on renting concrete road barriers and fencing, machinery to dig up the old path, trucks to cart the spoil and waste away, and concrete to create pylons that the path will sit on. Engineers are required to design the path, surveyors to do their measuring thing, project managers to run the whole show and OH&S people to ensure that no one drops a truck on their foot. Planners have to be engaged to arrange closing half the road, that has to be coordinated with the RTA, advertisements need to be placed in the local papers, residents consulted and informed, waste management plans formulated, water management plans written up, flora and fauna cutting plans drafted and approved and blah blah blah.

I'm sure that pouring the concrete is the cheapest part of the project.

This photo shows how high the road here is above the water - we're 5 or 6 metres up, and whilst the drop to the water is not vertical, it is very steep. Lots of concrete pylons are being sunk into the cliff top to support what will end up being a cantilevered path of some sort that will stick out over the cliff - they've done the same with the last section that was upgraded, and there are signs all the way around warning motorists not to try parking on the path, since it is not rated to support cars. If anyone tries that, they are going to end up upside down in the water 5 metres below, with a few tonnes of bike path sitting on their car.

This shows a bit of the form work being put together. In the middle of the photo, you can see how boards have been laid flat over a bit of empty space to create a base for the concrete path to be laid on.

Building these things isn't cheap. They don't have to be built super-strong to support cars and semi-trailers, which reduces the cost somewhat, but they still contain a lot of concrete, require a lot of labour and plant, and so whilst cheaper than a road, they are not exactly a line of paint sprayed on an existing road.

The Bay is one of the premier exercise paths for miles around, plus part of the route that non-motorists take when commuting to the city. It services a reasonable chunk of Sydney, including 3 councils, and gets huge volumes of foot traffic (joggers, pram pushers, dog walkers and plain old pedestrians) - yet parts of it are just bare dirt. Each year, the councils that surround The Bay scrape up a bit of cash and extend the paths somewhat - Canada Bay is the best in this regard, whilst Leichhardt blows all their cash on frivolous stupidities like statements of support for Gaza, and has no money left over for roadworks and drainage, let alone bikeworks.

The first section our council did was easy, so the money went a long way, paving maybe a kilometre of flat, easy ground. The next section was more difficult - the same amount of money paved maybe 300 metres. The section they are doing now is much tougher, so they're doing maybe 150 metres this year. The next section is even worse - they might only do 50 metres next year, or they might decide to do nothing for a few years, put the money aside and then do a 200 metre chunk in one go.... in 2013.

If you ask me, $40 million for bike paths is an insult, and whoever asked for it to be included in the porkulus bill was an idiot. All it has done is raise the ire of taxpayers. Money should be put into bike paths only if building them is viewed as a good idea, and where they'll deliver significant benefits. Just tossing money at them any old how is wasteful, stupid and counterproductive. Plus it's a drop in the ocean - a trivial amount that will do nothing - and this sort of thing is a state or local responsibility. The federal government should just bugger off and concentrate on the things it should be doing, not the things other levels of government should be doing.

I'm sure the usual "bicycle representative groups" will be lined up to say something positive about the money - as far as they are concerned, any money is good money - but it sickens me to think that instead of funding bike paths on their merits, they will be funded via a stupid, economically illiterate idea that will see money going to undeserving, useless infrastructure.

I'm not even going to call it "infrastructure". Let's call it "waste-a-structure" instead. Or "Pork-o-structure".

In the US, they are using this idiotic term "shovel ready" projects. Boy, do I laugh when I hear that. Let's imagine that our council, as part of its planning, has already prioritised spending for the next 10 years on bike projects (actually, it has). And it has even gone to the trouble of spending seed money on doing detailed designs and costings for those bits of path it wants to build over the next 2-5 years (which I doubt - they wouldn't have the money to do that - the detailed stuff would be done in the year the money is to be spent - but let's imagine that they have).

Let's also imagine that I was employed by Woin Swain on Monday to spend $5 million on 'shovel ready' projects in our council area. What would I find?

In Woin's imaginary world, I would walk into the council chambers and introduce myself to the council engineering team. They'd be sitting in front of a huge row of pigeon holes, and in each hole there would be a set of blueprints for bike paths that they want to build over the next 5 years. Each site would have been surveyed in detail, and an engineer employed to design where the path should go, how the interfaces would be laid out, what structures had to be moved or changed or demolished or built, how drainage would be handled and whether lighting was required.

The engineer would have produced a detailed budget, showing costs for labour, plant hire, materials, consultants and so on. Every facet of the project would have been costed, and every detail thought of.

They'd have done a subsurface scan as well to locate any services, like gas, water, sewerage, power and phone lines, and worked out whether they had to be moved as part of the project.

An environmental consultant would have written a report detailing the impact the construction would have on local frogs, birds, snails and grasses.

An aboriginal consultant would have written a report detailing the impact on local sacred sites, and prefaced it with a demand for $100 million in compensation from council.

A traffic engineer would have done traffic surveys (putting those rubber car counters down on the road) and worked out the impact the bike paths would have on motorised traffic. They'd have also written a traffic management plan.

And on it goes. In Woin's imaginary world, I would be shown to a desk that would contain a stack of these reports, along with recommendations, risks, issues and plans. All I'd have do is pull the big lever bolted to the side of the desk, and the plan would rumble into action........

That is as good as a description of Woin's wet dream as you will read anywhere.

In reality, the only plan will be the council bike network map, which shows all the "missing links". That's all council would give me, and I'd be told to get on with spending the $5 million.

6 months later, after fighting a major bit of paper warfare, I'd probably be at the point where I'd be getting an order approved to employ a surveyor to spend a week surveying the preferred locations, when the local MP (John "stroganoff" Murphy) would march in demanding that instead of building routes that the council and residents had determined they wanted, we were to build the routes that his 12 year old nephew thought were "ace".

A week later, a letter would turn up from his office, complaining that the sandwiches we served were not "big enough", and didn't contain enough lettuce. Plus he wanted extras at the next meeting, so he could take some home to his wife.

In short, a year would be wasted whilst we had a council-state-federal argument about what to build, and the next year would be spent getting approvals to bring on surveyors, traffic engineers, structural engineers, environmental consultants and so on to write plans and reports - and in the third year, those people would actually get a purchase order, and they'd go to work taking measurements and counting frogs and writing reports - assuming they hadn't all gone broke in the meantime as all their work had dried up.

The rest of the 3rd year would be taken up with reading and digesting the reports, running community consultation sessions and negotiating with the local aboriginal industry so that just before Christmas, tenders would be issued to actually lay concrete.

After getting back to work in late January in year 4, it would take 3 months to evaluate and approve the tenders, and the work would then be scheduled to start work in about August.

The whole job would be over in September, and I'd spend the remainder of the year writing project closure reports and so on.

My fee for those 4 years work would be $1 million - $250,000 per year is the going rate for a contract project manager once you take into account agency fees and the like. 20% of the entire project would be spent on one person - quite a bit to "create" one job.

And since the routes were based on the desires of John Murphy's 12 year old nephew, they would go nowhere useful - and his nephew would now be living somewhere else entirely. But at least Murphy's newsletters to his constituents (multi-page, in full colour, posted to all and sundry, paid for by the taxpayer) would be full of stories on this wonderful new, job creating "green" infrastructure.

Like I said - waste-a-structure.

1 comment:

Margo's Maid said...

I'm not a cyclist myself, BOAB, but I find the invective some motorists direct towards cyclists puzzling.