Roads Online web series: Constructing the road forward

In the wake of COVID-19 Roads Online is publishing a four-article series covering the challenges and opportunities within the construction industry. In this third instalment, we speak to ARRB, AAPA, Salini Impregilo and Laing O’Rourke about opportunities for the infrastructure sector in the coming 12 months.

While Australia continues to grapple with the the economic and health crisis caused by COVID-19, the country is slowly starting to see restrictions ease.

The reduction in restrictions has sparked conversation around what the new normal will look like as people begin to return to work and social norms.

Construction work has and will continue to progress on projects across Australia during COVID-19. It has also been made clear by all levels of government that the sector will play a large role in stimulating the economy in its recovery.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack has said construction is key to navigating Australia out of the pandemic while maintaining jobs and economic growth.

In addition, the NSW Transport Minister, Victorian Premier, Western Australian Premier and Queensland Premier have all indicated that construction will play a huge part in the economic recovery of their respective states.

Michael Caltabiano, Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB), said the industry is coping remarkably well despite operations not being business as usual.

“Social distancing has meant a different way of approaching construction work, toolbox meetings and the actual physical operations of work on site, but this hasn’t stopped the industry from completing projects,” Mr. Caltabiano said.

Among economic and employment benefits associated with the funding of the road construction sector, Mr. Caltabiano said COVID-19 presents opportunities to re-think the transport system and wider road safety practices.

“We don’t often get the opportunity to pause and we’ve been forced to pause now. It would be a tragedy to lose the opportunity of a forced pause to enact great change. That’s the opportunity before government and agencies like ARRB.”

Transport data collected by ARRB’s National Transport Performance Centre showed that following the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions, there was a major reduction in congestion on Melbourne’s Monash Freeway. Traffic congestion was reduced between 88 per cent and 95 per cent for weekday peak periods.

“Now, what we’ve observed is a massive change in the way people function by working from home. There’s been a major reduction in congestion on the Monash Freeway, with only 28 per cent less vehicles,” he said.

“Why wouldn’t we take an opportunity now to experiment with a segment of the city and see how an on-demand traffic and public transport system works with alternate forms of delivery. There is no better time than now.”

Congestion data, which demonstrates the change in movements on freeway networks can also be used to discuss alternate approaches to tackling traffic.

“If only a small change in the number of vehicles using our freeway networks results in a massive change in the congestion, then businesses can actively reimagine the ways in which they work,” Mr. Caltabiano said.

“People might find themselves really productive Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday at home, but would love the human contact on Thursday, Friday. Why wouldn’t we allow people to do that and play our part in getting vehicles off the road and people off the public transport system?” Mr. Caltabiano said.

As an example, ARRB is now looking to make working from home a permanent change.

Looking forward, Mr. Caltabiano also noted it is important to keep industry developments going, such as the use of recycled content and reduction of emissions from infrastructure construction.

“At ARRB we have kept the wheels turning and to the great credit of government’s across Australia, they have as well. Everybody is focused on ensuring we do the best we can to reinforce circular economy principals,” he said.

“ARRB has also been jointly funded by Queensland and WA state road agencies to look at the polymer characteristics of the plastic waste stream and how it might be incorporated into bituminous projects.”

Finally he said another area the industry should focus on, for economic stimulus and recovery, is safety.

“We want stimulus funding to have a legacy of a much safer road system. We don’t want to just spend the money and build what we’ve always built, we want to see the money spent to build a safer road system.”

Marco Assorati, Executive Director of Asia Pacific at Salini Impregilo has a similar view, that sustainable infrastructure development is crucial.

“COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed industry perspectives and a review of future needs in terms of sustainable infrastructure development is necessary. Sustainable transportation is pivotal and it will serve to stimulate the economy during and post COVID-19,” Mr. Assorati said.

He said governments across Australia are implementing an impressive program in the rail and road sector from the Sydney Metro to the M6 in NSW, to the North East Link and Suburban Rail Loop in VIC, Cross River Rail in QLD, Metronet in WA and Inland Rail.

Salini Impregilo has been a large part of some of these works such as the Sydney Metro and now the Forrestfield-Airport Link.

“The way governments face challenges in the coming weeks will shape the future of our industry. The economy needs to be stimulated and more projects can be an ideal booster for the whole supply chain and the industry,” Mr. Assorati said.

Carlos Rial, CEO of the Australian Asphalt Pavement Association (AAPA), agreed that this is the perfect opportunity for government to fund road construction.

Mr. Rial said that if industry issues such as the road maintenance backlog are addressed and smaller projects are able to begin construction quickly, the industry will be a major player in the economic recovery of Australia.

AAPA has been around for 50 years and, through its members, has helped to deliver safe and reliable roads. Mr. Rial said the industry’s desire to help the country by progressing road construction projects has never been stronger.

“AAPA members implement a continual improvement culture striving to always enhance workplace health and safety, product performance and best practice knowledge. This has been the case for over 50 years and that will continue for the next 50,” Mr. Rial said.

Echoing Mr. Caltabiano’s thoughts, Mr. Rial said the industry has long ensured Australian communities can stay connected and new initiatives such as recycling and improved productivity will not stop because of COVID-19.

“At the moment there is significant research going into renewable materials in roads, in particular, how to best use plastics. After COVID-19 the challenge of addressing the nation’s waste is still upon us as we transition to circular economy practices,” he said.

Also working on continual improvement is major contractor, Laing O’Rourke. Hollie Hynes, Sector General Manager for Roads and Bruce Gidley, General Manager Infrastructure said COVID-19 has given the company an opportunity to shake things up, try new things and move forward with greater speed and efficiency.

“Traditionally, the opportunities to get involved in road projects, for example, often increases when there is a need to kick start the economy,” the pair said.

“In fact, we are starting to see some evidence of this already through government questions and correspondence; for example stimulus conversations, questions around what projects are shovel ready, how to speed up approval processes and more.”

Recently, the Queensland Government announced it was fast tracking $185 million dollars worth of road projects and Victoria launched a Building Works package worth $2.1 billion.

“There are a number of projects, not only the ones that are currently underway, but projects in planning that can be brought to market early, subject to the availability of funding,” the pair said.

Ms. Hynes and Mr. Gidley highlighted that the Australian Constructors Association, together with representatives from state treasuries, have formed the Construction Industry Leadership Forum (CILF) to develop an industry-wide approach to improving the efficiency of construction going forward.

“For example, on our Pacific Highway Woolgoolga to Ballina Upgrade program, which is being delivered under a delivery partner model, technical innovations were able to be considered, trialled and rolled out in a way that previously would have not been possible,” the pair said.

These industry advancements are hoped to improve processes in the future to improve construction efficiency.

“Roads will be fundamental to connectivity. As we start to emerge from this pandemic, into a post-COVID-19 world, the Australian people will demand the ability to move around, reconnect with others and the environment, and really explore what this amazing country has to offer.”

Ms. Hynes and Mr. Gidley said the road construction industry provides a lasting legacy as spending on infrastructure filters into a broad range of local businesses. They said it also has much wider societal benefits such as road safety improvement, improved route times, economic stimulus and providing people with cities they are proud to live in.

This is the third instalment in Roads Online’s four part series. Click here to see the previous article which looks at the importance of looking after mental health. The next article will cover opportunities to re-think the future of infrastructure and planning.

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