Tackling congestion in WA: Transport Minister Rita Saffioti

Roads & Infrastructure speaks to WA Transport Minister Rita Saffioti to discuss the government’s priorities to tackle congestion and the road toll through major projects and innovative technologies.

This article was published in the February edition of Roads & Infrastructure and since then some of the below events may have changed.

In 2015, Infrastructure Australia predicted that transport cost delays in Perth would grow at an average annual rate of around 11 per cent, from $2 billion in 2011 to $16 billion in 2031.

The 2015 Australian Infrastructure Audit stated that in the absence of additional capacity, the northern corridor would likely become one of the most congested corridors in Perth and demand would well exceed capacity before 2031.

That same year, the Office of the Auditor General doubled down in its assessment of Main Roads projects to address traffic congestion, concluding that neither Main Roads nor the Department of Transport had clear objectives, service performance standards and targets for managing congestion. In part, this was because there was no strategy to deal with it or agency. One of its views was that Main Roads did not have good information to inform traffic congestion decision-making and that, where possible, data should be collected in real-time.

It recommended Main Roads, by the end of 2015, complete its review of data and information and finalise a five-year congestion program, including an implementation plan with budgets and timelines and other recommendations.

Five years down track under the purview of a new government, several key projects in rail and road, including NorthLink and the Armadale Road to North Lake Road Bridge, are seeking to address the challenge.

WA Transport Minister Rita Saffioti tells Roads & Infrastructure one of her main priorities is to improve congestion which she says has increased over the years.

“We’ve got our freeway which is the main artery north and south and that has seen heavy congestion. We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new freeway projects across both the northern and southern freeway,” she says.

“What we’ve seen across the network is congestion in key corridors where we’ve seen significant residential growth, for example in the Ellenbrook corridor.”

She says that many roads, particularly in the outer suburbs, were not fit-for-purpose as they were built at a rural level. Projects like the Armadale Road Duplication are therefore seeking to address congestion points in the southcorridor.

Ms. Saffioti says that while across WA there have been some significant projects, the NorthLink is one that stands out as improving safety and efficiency for the trucking industry. At the time of the interview, she says the third stage was set to be open in several weeks’ time and cut travel time between Morley-Ellenbrook by half.

“It’s a project that everyone that uses it agrees is transformational,” Ms. Saffioti says.

The $1.02 billion NorthLink WA will link to Gateway WA and support regional traffic movements to commercial and industrial areas, including Malaga, Kewdale, Perth Airport and the CBD. With joint funding from the federal and state government, NorthLink aims to link Morley to Muchea and bust congestion.

The Connecting People in Places 2018-19 Strategy highlights that in 2019-20, the government will complete the development of a consolidated five-year Congestion Strategy and Movement Program. Ms. Saffioti says that the strategy development is underway.

HIGH-TECH VISION

Following auditor general recommendations, the government in late 2018 launched the Road Network Operations Centre, a high-tech facility capable of managing traffic flow across the metropolitan region.

“This give us real-time tracking of the network and we’re tracking all of our key roads in 27 segments across the entire network,” Ms. Saffioti says.

She says the data helps to understand volumes of traffic and the efficiency of the network.

“As a result it informs better infrastructure spending so I think all these technologies are most useful when it can actually help target and create more efficient spending.”

Using this knowledge, the government has invested in the state’s most congested intersection at Tonkin Highway and Welshpool Road. Ms. Saffioti says the centre ensures the government is focused on tackling the top 10 congested areas and any other emerging areas.   

“We’re able to look across the network at those roads that have experienced efficiency improvements and those where it’s gone backwards. For example, the Tonkin Highway is now a course which is now the NorthLink project [and] is experiencing significant improvements.

“And in other areas there have been some treatments made, whether it’s just basically sequencing the traffic lights better to other minor road improvements to help efficiency, and we’ve seen some improvements across the network.”

As Australia remains in the midst of a bushfire crisis, in January tourists found themselves stranded on outback tracks after the Eyre Highway was closed for 12 days. As the only sealed transport route between WA and the rest of Australia, the highway was shut down due to fires.

WA trucking association the Western Roads Federation told ABC News they were lobbying for more outback roads to be upgraded and sealed, including the Great Central Highway. State Member for Kalgoorlie Kyran O’Donnell also told the Kalgoorlie Miner that sealing the Trans Access Road needs to be firmly placed on the political agenda. Ms. Saffioti says she believes the Outback Way sealing will assist in relation to occasions where the Eyre Highway is affected. She says the government is also looking at how the Eyre Highway can be better protected.

“It was difficult for the people involved that were stranded and, of course, industry as well, so we understand that had a major impact, but we’re working to see how we can better protect it into the future,” she says, adding that greater backburning could occur along the road to prevent the threat of the road closing again.

On questions of whether the government planned on providing relief funding for rebuilding critical infrastructure, including roads, Ms. Saffioti says Main Roads WA has access through the Commonwealth for disaster funding.

“In relation to Eyre Highway, that was tripled checked before it was reopened and my report so far is it hasn’t had significant damage.”

Turning to the road toll, the Towards Zero Strategy had a vision for 11,000 fewer people killed or seriously injured by 2020. When the strategy was developed, 2006 data showed non-metropolitan WA was the worst performing jurisdiction per 100,000 population based on 33 jurisdictions, including Netherlands, Greece, Japan and other Australian states. However, WA metropolitan delivered much better results.

Ms. Saffioti says that last year there was a slight increase in the number of people who died on Australian roads. Data from the Road Safety Commission shows the road toll at 165 in 2019, down from 2000 in 2006 with regional WA still affected by a higher toll.

“I’m really focused on regional road deaths in WA and in particular we’re really highlighting a program which is a regional run-off program to which we commit around $20 million a year.

The Forrestfield-Airport Link is part of METRONET – a series of rail projects aimed at improving liveability.

“That project is all about widening the shoulders and having audible edge lining and centre lining on our regional roads because a big percentage of the deaths in regional WA are single vehicle run-offs.”

She says recycled materials in roadbase is another area of development, with Main Roads WA testing a number of products. On questions of whether Main Roads WA had plans to update the specifications, she says “potentially”.

“I think what happened in WA was there was initially some hesitation from Main Roads in relation to the specs and quality. And so what they’ve managed to do is Main Roads work with the environmental agency and industry to have the machinery able to develop the quality product.”

She says as a result, trials have been undertaken which have led to recycled materials used on key projects such as freeway upgrades. Demolition on Subiaco Oval began last year, with up to 95 per cent of the demolition material to be recovered for reuse or recycling, such as in roadbase.

As to what she hopes would be her legacy, Ms. Saffioti says delivering METRONET and better connecting communities to target congestion. Likewise, a smart freeway project along the Kwinana Highway informing drivers about what’s coming up ahead is another she prides herself on. Ms. Saffioti says she’s also interested in mobility as a service and connecting sparse populations to transport, with harmonised autonomous vehicle policy being worked through the Council of Australian Governments.

While she says there are no road vision statements coming up, she has discussed legacy projects with new agency InfrastructureWA. She says that many of these are big in nature and therefore need an independent body to inform decision-making.

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