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Tackling the transport infrastructure conundrum

Home Infrastructure Construction & Civils Tackling the transport infrastructure conundrum

By Chris Campbell, CEO of Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA)

BLOATED state employment with low levels of output would not be tolerated in the private sector and the same should be true in the public sector if we are to optimise our spend on staffing costs. It is counterproductive to constrain the development of economic infrastructure at a time when we need to develop additional infrastructure for economic growth, whether logistics or tourism-related.

Greater investment in functional roads, rail, air and sea, and transport networks are all drivers to get our stagnant economy on a growth trajectory, which currently is projected by local and international economists at less than 1% of gross domestic product in the current year; inferior to other competitive and developing economies where 3-4% is the norm.

Investment is needed in skilled people, for developing future skills together with a long-term focus on ensuring that all of these transport systems are adequately operated and maintained to realise the ongoing benefits of such economic infrastructure. We cannot afford to run these to failure and hope to have the funds required to build anew.

Our railways are over 100 years old, and so are our ports. We need to build on this legacy for the benefit of future generations rather than watch it erode into levels of dysfunctionality which will be hard to rectify. This will require the collective effort of both government and the private sector as committed partners in this process.

With respect to ensuring an enduring functional National Roads system, it does not make sense for a functional entity, such as Sanral, to be continuously burdened with the responsibility of managing Provincial Roads. Sanral already lacks the capacity to optimally manage its core routes, and burdening it with the need to develop additional specific capacity for the management of these Provincial roads, could be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”.

Realistic public-private partnerships – addressing the skills challenge

One can include the need for stronger and more realistic public-private partnerships as an initiative which has not been utilised sufficiently. One cannot, for example, expect parties who may be interested in a concession on a major freight rail network, to make substantial investments where the contracted period is hopelessly too short. Other initiatives, which we are already busy with, are to separate the infrastructure asset owner from the user in the case of rail, to allow for multi-user access on a paid-for basis as we do with toll roads.

The management and skills challenges will still need to be addressed in the immediate short term, as the vertical separation process will not happen quickly enough, and even if it does, it will require an optimally functional and capacitated ‘Infrastructure Manager’ to ensure that the network is ‘Reliable, Affordable, Available and Safe’ – ‘RAAS’. This was the mantra which many lived up to from the late nineties well into the early 2000s, in the railway infrastructure maintenance environment, when all efforts were being made to ensure that the rail service was indeed ‘predictable’.

New projects build empowerment and economic inclusivity

Section 217 in our Constitution requires that we at all times ensure, fairness, cost effectiveness, transparency and competitiveness while using public procurement to drive the necessary economic inclusivity, which is still lacking in our post-1994 society. Ensuring the appropriate skills levels to implement these projects is imperative, especially at the local government level.

Better use should be made of the private sector consulting engineering capacity – Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) has close to 600 member companies employing thousands of engineering practitioners, who are utilised only to 80% of industry capacity. Many young engineering practitioners are emigrating to where their skills and knowledge are fully utilised.

We need to use new projects to build on our empowerment and economic inclusivity by developing competent and committed capacity among consulting engineering companies, contractors and suppliers. There can be no room for extortive practices and corruption, which has hampered many new projects to date.

More local capacity for the future will help to overcome foreign-based approaches that seek to lend money to our country for development, while at the same time being allowed to take advantage of the financial opportunity that these projects present, to the exclusion of our local industries.

In conclusion, we need a collective approach in which the government taps into the capacity and technical expertise available from the private sector to develop a comprehensive transportation plan for our country. This plan needs to not only focus on the development of new infrastructure but also on the maintenance of our existing infrastructure, aimed at meeting the needs of all participants in the transportation sector.

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