Maintaining the main road network
The Netherlands Court of Audit has investigated the budgetary problems surrounding the maintenance of the main road network in the Netherlands. We looked at the causes of overdue maintenance, the methods used by Rijkswaterstaat, the government agency responsible for highway maintenance, and whether the House of Representatives received sufficient information on the costs and risks.
Under the responsibility of the Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, Rijkswaterstaat builds, operates, maintains, renovates and replaces the main road network in the Netherlands. To carry out the work at the right time, not too early but also not too late, it must be constantly aware of the state of the network. Its budget for the work must also be available at the right time.
In 2011 the Minister informed the House of Representatives that there was budget shortfall of €0.7 billion for the maintenance of the main road network. When there had been a similar shortfall ten years earlier, the government had released a considerable sum to eliminate the backlog of maintenance work. We investigated whether risks had arisen from the latest budget shortfall, what the causes were and whether the shortfall had been resolved. We also looked at how the Minister informed the House of Representatives of the costs and risks.
Risks to quality of the main road network and efficiency of maintenance
Maintenance of the main roads and the renovation and replacement of related infrastructure such as crash barriers, matrix signs, noise barriers, bridges, tunnels and fly-overs have been postponed in recent years. Risks have accordingly arisen to the quality of the main road network. Efficiency risks have also increased, as the longer it takes to carry out maintenance, renovation and replacement work the more expensive it becomes.
Maintenance costs budgeted too low
The risks are the outcome of budgetary problems. In 2011 the Minister of I&M did not budget sufficient funds to meet the cost of maintenance to the end of 2020. In particular, calculation of the budget should have taken more account of overdue maintenance and the enlargement of the main road network. There was an additional budget requirement of approximately €0.7 billion for the years to the end of 2020. The Minister has since reserved €0.3 billion but the money will not be available in the years when it is needed. No funding at all is available for the remainder of the additional budget shortfall (€0.4 billion).
Rijkswaterstaat’s information management must be improved
The Ministry of I&M has improved its management of Rijkswaterstaat’s working methods in recent years. However, the conditions in place to ensure efficient maintenance of the main road network have still not been satisfied. We think that improvements are necessary in Rijkswaterstaat’s information management so that programming and budgeting of the maintenance is better supported. Rijkswaterstaat should base its budget on accrual accounting principles rather than cash accounting principles. Expenditure on long-term assets could then be spread out over several years. The ‘silent cost’ of infrastructure (the gradual aging that cannot be reversed by management and maintenance) would then be better understood.
House of Representatives should receive more information
The House of Representative’s information position would be strengthened if the Minister of I&M provided it with more information on all costs and financial risks of maintaining the main road network. The Minister should also provide more information on the relationship between the available budget, the required maintenance standard and the social impact of maintenance.
We made the following recommendations to the Minister of I&M:
- when allocating funding to the main road network, give priority to maintenance and programme the construction of new roads in the remaining budget;
- report the volume of overdue maintenance on the main road network to the House of Representatives, eliminate the overdue maintenance and periodically inform the House of the progress;
- introduce full accrual-based accounting at Rijkswaterstaat;
- study ways to introduce a comprehensive maintenance regime for the main road network instead of using separate budget regimes. The regime should be based on performance agreements made with Rijkswaterstaat;
- improve Rijkswaterstaat’s information management so that (a) there is an up-to-date understanding of the state of the roads, (b) the quality of the main road network can be related to the available financial resources, and (c) more than one maintenance scenario can be developed;
- ensure that Rijkswaterstaat anticipates future maintenance costs (life cycle approach) when decisions are taken on new roads;
- periodically inform the House of developments in maintenance costs to the end of 2020 and of the budget measures taken.
Response of the minister of I&M
The Minister of I&M does not wish to provide additional funding for the budget to maintain the main road network until the risks are ‘hard enough’. She thinks a certain amount of overdue maintenance is acceptable and that there is no major overdue maintenance.
In our afterword, we repeated that the House of Representative’s information position relative to the Minister should be improved because the financial consequences of maintenance are inadequately understood. As a result, the House is not fully able to draw its own conclusions on construction and maintenance. We also stressed that the overdue maintenance of the main road network, and the increase in its volume, required urgent attention.