Many of my friends lament the condition of Byron Shire roads. There are more potholes, they are getting bigger and the council gangs never seem to get ahead of them. A friend has spent over $1,000 on broken rims and tyres, and there are accidents waiting to happen as motorists concentrate on dodging potholes, even veering onto the wrong side of the road, instead of concentrating on driving.
So why are the roads so bad in Byron Shire? The council complain they have insufficient funds, and there is an element of truth in that, but, other councils have the same financial problems and their roads are nowhere near as bad.
It’s not rocket science. Ask any competent person in the road maintenance business, ‘What is the most important thing you must do to keep your sealed roads in reasonable condition?’ They will tell you, ‘Keep up with your reseals’.
What is a ‘seal’ and ‘reseal’? Bitumen roads consist of a compacted gravel ‘pavement’ which could be 300mm thick and is surfaced with a bitumen seal. The seal normally consists of a sprayed on, thin layer of hot bitumen (which later sets hard) overlain by a layer of stone. The stone acts as a wearing surface. The thin bitumen layer holds the stone in place and forms a waterproof seal for the road. The seal prevents rain entering the gravel pavement underneath, which then stays hard and strong supporting the heavy traffic above for many years. Some seals are ‘asphalt’ which is a mixture of bitumen, sand and stone, it is smoother than a regular seal, but the water proofing issues are the same.
After about eight years the ultraviolet action of the sun makes bitumen brittle and it starts to crack, small cracks at first, but they get worse as time goes by. If something is not done rain enters the cracks, the underneath gravel softens and the action of heavy wheels makes potholes form. In the early years there are not many cracks, potholes do not form often and it is easy for the pothole gangs to keep up.
A responsible road authority will intervene at this point and reseal their bitumen roads on an eight to 10 year cycle. A ‘reseal’ is just another seal over the top of the old seal. It is used to re-waterproof the road so that it can have another eight to 10 years of good service, then provided the underlying gravel pavement is still OK it can be resealed again and again.
This does not happen in Byron Shire. There are some roads in Byron Shire that have not seen a reseal for over 20 years. When seals are this old, the bitumen layer becomes riddled with wider and wider cracks. And potholes form so rapidly after rain that the pothole crews have no chance of keeping up. We all see it after every bout of heavy rain and it keeps on getting worse and worse. For whatever reason, successive Byron Shire Councils have failed to keep up with regular reseals. The community is now paying a high price in vehicle damage, road accidents and in time will risk completely losing a very important asset – our sealed road network.
If you look at council’s Asset Management Plan, they rate their sealed road condition at 3.3 out of 5 (fair to poor condition). My experiences tell me it is much worse than this.
There are 590 km of sealed roads in Byron Shire, assuming an average width of six metres this is 3,450,000 sq m. Reseals cost around $5 per sq m, so the cost to fully reseal the network is around $17.1 million. Alternatively if you don’t reseal and have to fully reconstruct the roads at around $50 per sq m, then the bill goes up to $171 million and financial oblivion for Byron Shire. Or maybe they would just let all the roads wear out and return to gravel.
What to do? The sensible thing would be to borrow sufficient funds to reseal the entire network over say a three-year period, and buy a bit of breathing space. It would not be pretty, as reseals over heavily patched roads would be still be quite rough. However they would be waterproof and we would not need to spend a fortune on pothole repairs and getting nowhere.
I urge Byron Shire Council to bite the bullet on reseals. They are not glamorous works, and do not have grand ribbon cutting openings, but they are the only means of salvaging our sealed road network and I believe council owes this to its community.
Patrick Knight, Byron Bay