Maintenance issues

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John Macadam, pioneer in road design was perhaps the first to lay down basic principles for road maintenance management. He held that, firstly, central government must assume a supervisory role. Secondly, management should be trained, professional and adequately paid. “Gratuitous services”, he said succinctly, ” have always disappointed expectations”. Thirdly, construction laborers should be selected according to criteria of fitness and competence and paid a market wage, preferably by piecework. Finally, maintenance “mile men” (now called length men) should be appointed each with full responsibility for a mile of road (this can vary). In summary, he advocated building upon local autonomy and personal initiative, while providing efficient organisation and close supervision.

These principles, formulated almost two hundred years ago, are relevant today. Remember that preventive maintenance is largely small scale water management. Water must be evacuated as quickly as possible from the road surface before it softens the surface and does irreversible damage to the road bed and foundation. This requires eliminating standing water by filling in of potholes and ruts on level ground as well as preventing the formation of lateral and longitudinal gullies where the destructive momentum of flowing water is particularly damaging. The convexity of the surface must be restored and ditches and culverts kept clean since they easily get blocked and divert the water back on the road.

It is not sufficient to simply engage lengthmen. They must be supervised, supplied with materials, their tools replaced, and quality kept up thorough frequent inspection. Sometimes, it may be necessary to provide extra workers, for example, if a landslide occurs. Thus, each group of workers will require a foreman, well-trained and mobile.

At a higher level again, the contractors engaged to provide these services must be answerable to a body possessing the technical and managerial skills necessary to draw up and enforce the contract conditions. Finally, this body should be answerable to a committee representing road users, who, in the best of all possible worlds, should have a financial stake in maintenance proportional to the advantages it gives them.

Such a maintenance system cannot be provided centrally for the simple reason that rural road systems are too remote and extensive. Rare is the government in the least-developed countries which has up-to-date knowledge of where many rural roads are or even if they still exist (without maintenance a road will disappear after five years or so). Central government must ensure that the policy and legislative environment is coherent and supportive. It must also channel financial and other forms of support within a transparent and consistent annual grants programme with reasonable guarantees of continuance. However, maintenance must be decentralized to whatever is the most appropriate level. If solid local government structures exist, they can be used. If not, ad hoc but robust systems must be set up in collaboration with local interest groups supported if possible by an NGO.

In conclusion, there is no single appropriate structure for preventive maintenance management. It can involve a multiplicity of combinations involving government, local informal organizations, and construction and transport private sector enterprises. It must be negotiated during planning and programming and should ensure a smooth transition from construction to maintenance activities to ensure that the considerable effort in training and institution-building is not wasted. Preventive maintenance is thus intimately linked with labour-based construction since, if machine-based methods are favored, the opportunity to seamlessly integrate the two is lost.