Maintaining old roads as important as building new ones

Ireland has lots of lovely new roads. Nice to have got something out of the boom while it lasted. But while we might be delighted with the shiny new motorways it is easy to lose sight of the fact that as well as some good roads we have an awful lot of bad ones.

And I mean a lot. Ireland has an incredible length of road network for the size of country that we are. We have about 98,000 kilometres of roads of all sorts to serve a population of 4.5 million. When you absorb the data you begin to see the problem with looking after it all.

In the Netherlands they have nearly four times our population in a space not much bigger than Leinster. Our near neighbours the British have a densely populated isle and hence only have a third as much road per capita as we do.

In our case our roads are a legacy of history. In earlier times the Irish population was higher. Roads evolved from turnpikes and trunk roads, paths between towns and in many cases paths or tracks that served local farms and their livestock, hence bothair as gaeilige.

With the twentieth century most of these got covered in tarmacadam and became part of our road stock. Keeping a surface on them and keeping them safe became the thankless and endless task of the local authority.

Our primary roads are the Motorways and the ‘N’ routes. Those between them are just over 6,000 kilometres but they carry about half of all traffic. Overall those roads are of very good quality when compared with other European countries although there are certainly a few exceptions.

The other 90,000 plus kilometres carries the other 50 per cent of the traffic, diluted across all sorts of small to middling sized roads. That network tends on the whole to be of poor quality simply because there is so much of it.

We know from the data that secondary roads that are older or that have evolved from tracks rather than being designed as roads tend to be more dangerous. Given that we are not going to connect every parish in the land by motorway we need to figure out a way to keep these roads serviceable and keep them reasonably safe.

This isn’t cheap. In fact it costs about €400 million per year. That money pays for basic maintenance and upkeep, trimming hedges, resurfacing when needed, patching potholes, clearing sight-lines etc.

The shiny new main roads are not cheap either. We have moved away from the construction phase and we know that there will be minimum capital spending in the next few years. In fact from now we will be spending only about 20 per cent of what the budget for new roads once was. It is a far cry from the time when the NRA’s wealth was the envy of Europe.

The emphasis is on minding and managing existing road rather than building new. Sorry to the west of Ireland and many other locations that would like to be connected to each other rather than just to Dublin. You will just have to wait for the next boom.

Roads are not like fine wine. They do not improve with age. If you don’t pay for their upkeep they won’t just stay as they are they will deteriorate. This is a dilemma for the state at the moment. The allocation of funds for the upkeep of the roads is inadequate. You could argue over figures but in reality it is about 15 per cent or so below the level required.

You can get away with this but not for long. It is a bit like a leaky roof at home. You could decide that you will live with the leak, make good use of an old bucket and save yourself a thousand or so on the cost of the repair.

The reason no-one does that is because we all know that the repair will be more expensive next year and if you neglect it too long you won’t have a roof at all. Money ‘saved’ by not maintaining is simply a can kicked down the road.


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