Pothole problem needs a long-term solution

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Peter Shone, managing director of national construction and engineering services contractor JPCS, shares his views on the Department for Transport’s Pothole Review and how local authorities can tackle the UK’s pothole epidemic

As featured in the May 2012 edition of Highways Magazine, page 10-17.

Recent research suggests there are at least 1.5 million potholes in the UK; that’s double the number reported in 2007. There is no denying it, we are facing a pothole epidemic and it is motorists and taxpayers up and down the country who are bearing the cost.

Our pothole-filled roads cost motorists an estimated £320 million per year as well as accelerating the depreciation of our highways asset. The problem has been intensified by a series of harsh winters pounding our roads and footpaths. The Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance survey (ALARM) revealed the damage from the extreme winter in 2010 cost local authorities an additional £4.4 million each in road maintenance bills.

The Government has stepped up its support by providing an extra £200 million last winter, on top of the committed £3 billion for the next four years*, to local highways authorities to boost road maintenance budgets. This current pothole epidemic has led to the DfT, as part of the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP), commissioning a report on the UK’s growing pothole problem. The report recommends a preventative approach to highway maintenance planning with three overarching themes:

  • Prevention is better than cure
  • Right first time approach
  • Customer communication and clarity for the public.

These recommendations make sense and JPCS welcomes them, but how can local authorities, road maintenance teams and contractors implement these in a cost effective way?

Prevention in practice

The increasingly popular approach to pothole repair is to fill and patch as they appear, but this is just a temporary measure. Quick fix repairs are not providing an effective long term solution and panic pothole patching is not only the perception, but the reality. Preventative approaches to road maintenance need to be planned so local authorities aren’t playing catch-up all the time.

Prevention shouldn’t be delayed and that’s where the importance of programming comes in. Having appropriate and well planned maintenance programmes for contractors to work to means the problem can be addressed quickly, thus reducing long term costs.

One preventative approach involves implementing a programme to waterproof a road and footpath network, especially after the impact our past winters have had. Water and frost are two of the most damaging conditions affecting our roads, accelerating deterioration. Waterproofing will decrease deterioration and prevent water ingress, particularly in the most vulnerable areas of the highways network, in particular oxidising and oxidised areas.A preventative waterproofing programme could save authorities thousands of pounds each year, as well as reducing disruption on the roads and associated costs.

Get it right from the start 

Many pothole repairs are prescribed from a desktop without even a visit to the site. No pothole is the same and this means products and solutions which are not fit for purpose are selected. It’s vital that pothole repairs are right first time. Solutions should be bespoke and engineered for that specific pothole or defect; councils must move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Another way to ensure solutions are right first time is by working in partnership. Engineering contractors and local authorities need to work together to create an effective solution. Instead of simply telling contractors “do this”, authorities need to embrace the expertise specialist road maintenance suppliers offer, by asking “this is the problem, how can we fix it?”

JPCS recommends trialling and evaluating products in collaboration with local authorities to develop the right solution, even if this is initially at the expense of right first time as innovation sometimes requires experimentation. Working closely with forward thinking authority Cheshire West and Chester Council, JPCS ran long term trials with Rejuvopatch, which can be used as a ‘once and done’ patching repair product and a waterproofing surface treatment. The outcome was a bespoke engineered solution that fixed potholes and had the added benefit of combined preventative maintenance.

Kevin Carrol, Highway Manager for the Council comments: “Our focus is on asset management and value for money. We undertake permanent repairs where and whenever possible making sure that consideration is given to the treatments to ensure that they are appropriate to the road type and the longevity of the treatment. The Rejuvopatch product has flexibility and has been used over a number of years in the urban areas with great success. Planned works are better than reactive and part of that is preventative treatments like Rejuvopatch.”

Communication and clarity  

Potholes are a major area for public complaint; one in five mechanical failures on UK roads is caused by potholes. The public need to feel like local authorities and councils are listening to their concerns. End-user feedback is vital and should be sought by highway inspectors or engineering contractors. As all local authorities know, the minute you don a yellow jacket and stand on a road with maintenance work taking place, people come out of their houses and provide you with valuable feedback which needs to be taken on board.

The public also need to understand why preventative works are being done so they can clearly witness the long-term preventative benefits of any short term disruption created by maintenance works. Co-ordinated social media is a great way to create these communication channels.

Time for innovation

With current maintenance budgets and resources being tightly squeezed, alternative durable products and methods need to be considered. Rejuvoptach is one such product, providing a cost effective and sustainable method of carrying out a wide range of repairs to defects within bituminous bound surfaces. The design mix is carried out to suit the individual pothole on-site so the best bespoke solution for the individual pothole can be achieved. The Rejuvopatch material is a hand lay, cold applied material suitable as a permanent patching or surface treatment product with a PSV (polished stone value) of in excess of 60. Engineering with engineers ensures the right materials used in the right way.

The UK’s 1.5 million potholes are not going to disappear overnight, it’s going to take a planned and sustained effort, but I fully believe if the industry takes on these recommendations and changes its approach to road maintenance the pothole epidemic will become manageable first and then a thing of the past.

More industry reaction to pothole review:

Institute of Highway Engineers President, Steve Spender said: “Our roads and footways have shown a high level of deterioration over the last few years not only due to the successive severe winters, but also as a result of a level of under- investment in the network over a longer period of time. Most authorities are progressing with the development of applying asset management principles in their highway maintenance regimes but there is still a shortage of experience and knowledge in this field that will aid us in ensuring that we make most effective use of resources.

“By underpinning the knowledge that is required through training and competencies, better resilience can be applied into our network through a greater degree of preventative maintenance rather than reactive maintenance. But, as mentioned in the report, this requires a greater degree of medium and long term financial planning.”

Paul Fleetham, Managing Director of Tarmac National Contracting and Middle East, said: “I welcome the Pothole Review’s findings and it is good to see that the state of UK roads is now firmly on the political agenda. While the Review rightly underlines the importance of preventive maintenance and adopting a ‘right first time’ approach, adequate Government funding is also essential to tackle the significant road maintenance backlog.

“The harsh reality is that many local authorities are operating highways maintenance budgets that are up to 25 per cent less than three years ago and the national annual shortfall to tackle the backlog now stands at £895 million. The Government not only needs to ensure that maintenance budgets are set at appropriate levels, but also commit to one of the Review’s recommendations and provide local authorities with funding allocations over longer periods so that they can plan more effectively.”

With thanks to the Highways Magazine. To find out more about the the Highways Magazine, or to view the current issue, please visit their website.