The announcement this week of some funding ($12.1 million) to improve road assessment of road assets in rural Australia is not a solution, it just means there will be a few fewer unknown unknowns.
It was Donald Rumsfeld, the ex-US Secretary of Defence under two US presidents, who coined the concept of known unknowns and unknown unknowns many years ago. It happens to be a useful way of explaining how Australia manages its road infrastructure.
From the point of view of the trucking industry the state of the roads, especially in rural areas has always been a known. A short trip along some of the major highways in a truck will always clearly illustrate the problem. I, personally, still have the bad back to prove it.
In the last century trucking operators knew how bad the roads were and complained, but to little avail. The only way to get any sort of improvement would involve working how there was some political gain for the authorities and continually pushing that button to get things done.
This ad hoc and random system left us with a highway system barely fit for service in parts and downright dangerous in others. However, there were no votes in it so the system remained uncared for.
Then two developments led to a change in attitude for all involved. Firstly, the introduction of the GST involved a need to quantify how much money needed to be spent on repairing roads across the country. This was to enable the National Transport Commission to calculate how much of this repair was down to the trucking industry in order to to calculate the road user charge.
A few years later the concept of Performance Based Standards came into being. In order for this system to be effective, there was a need to quantify what each length of road could handle in terms of weight, length and layout. This was required to work out which PBS truck could use which route.
These two initiatives taught us one thing, the authorities had no idea what highways they had, what condition they were in or what they could handle. The trucking industry was working with an unknown unknown.
This situation led to two schmozzles. One saw the NTC having to do guesswork from each state’s budget. The states all calculate the way they spend money on roads differently (of course), so notional figures were plucked from the air and they were used to calculate the road user charge.
This led to the discovery (surprise, surprise) that the trucking industry was being overcharged by billions of dollars for their upkeep.
The people running the PBS asked the states for a classification map of all of their roads, so that routes for particular combinations could be specified. Once the question was asked it became clear very little was known about roads which hadn’t been built in the last few years. PBS was hamstrung by the continuous need for extra road and bridge assessments, and local authorities without any qualified staff to answer even the simplest questions.
In the intervening years the situation has become a little clearer. Some progress has been made in classifying roads, but operators still have trucks sitting or being under utilised, waiting for approval. At the same time, the government did acknowledge the overcharging, froze it for a time, but is now back on the over charging bandwagon.
From where I sit, we may have some known unknowns now, but there are still plenty of unknown unknowns out there, and $12.1 million is not going to make much of a dint in the problem.