Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Traffic cones and white utes: symbols of NZ's decline as a road-builder

I’ve figured out who the wealthiest man in New Zealand is. It’s not a property developer or a software billionaire or a dairy industry mogul. It’s the bastard who makes those orange-and-white traffic cones.

You can’t drive more than 10 kilometres in any direction without encountering thickets of these cones, often sprouting in circumstances where there’s no obvious justification for them. Every time I see them, I hear the sound of a cash register going “ker-ching!”

I wish I’d bought shares in the company. They must rank with Tesla, Amazon and Apple in terms of value growth.

In the BTC (before traffic cones) era, New Zealand managed to build a national highway network with just a bloke standing at each end of a road construction job with a roll-your-own in one hand and a “Stop” sign in the other.

Not anymore. No job, whether it’s mowing a grass verge or filling in a couple of potholes, is so minor that it doesn’t require truckloads of men in high-vis vests laying out rows of traffic cones and other safety appurtenances lest a feckless motorist causes carnage.  

And we mustn’t forget the traffic control trucks that cruise back and forth with their giant flashing arrows. Observation has led me to suspect that the traffic control trucks which patrol the Hutt motorway – closing lanes, laying down endless lines of cones and forcing traffic to slow to a crawl – sometimes do so not because of any actual work in progress but out of sheer devilment. And there always seems to be more than one bloke in the cab, no doubt so that someone can take over if the driver collapses from the sheer stress and exhaustion of it all.

It should never be assumed that the presence of cones signifies actual work being done. Sometimes they denote a project already completed or intended to be tackled at some indeterminate point in the future. 

Often they are accompanied by speed restrictions whose purpose is similarly unclear. How many times have you seen a sign instructing you to slow to 50 kph on a stretch of road where whatever work was supposedly under way had long since been finished – or alternatively, had yet to start – and any need for reduced speed had either passed or hadn’t yet arisen? And how many times have you passed a sign saying “Works End” when there was nothing to indicate they had started?

Small wonder that motorists have learned to ignore such signs, recognising there’s often no justification for them. The danger, of course, is that they will treat speed restriction signs with contempt even where they have been put in place for a good reason.

But those traffic cones are simply a manifestation of a bigger and more puzzling phenomenon. I call it the white ute syndrome.

Observe any major highway construction project and the first thing you notice is the number of white utes with flashing lights. Most of these vehicles are stationary and apparently doing nothing. Someone drives them to the job in the morning and home again at night, but I wonder what they do in between to justify the expense. Four-wheel-drive utes don’t come cheap, after all, and they’ll cost even more after Labour’s diesel tax starts to bite.

The second thing you notice is the legions of men (and very occasionally a woman) in high-vis vests standing around doing … well, not much at all.

The third thing you’re likely to notice is that you can drive past one of these major highway construction sites at regular intervals over weeks or months and see little or no evidence of progress. This has led me to conclude that New Zealanders have become the world’s least efficient roadbuilders.

For years I’ve travelled every few weeks between the Wairarapa and the Kapiti Coast. This has enabled me to observe progress – or the lack of it – on the Transmission Gully expressway and more recently the Haywards Hill (State Highway 58) safety upgrade. I have plenty of time to do this because traffic is routinely reduced to a crawl over a stretch of several kilometres.

Progress on both projects has proceeded at a glacial pace. I look in vain for any evidence that work has advanced since I last passed through, but mostly what I see is more traffic cones arranged in ever-changing configurations. 

One constant, however, is that there are always plenty of white utes with flashing lights and lots of blokes in high-vis vests standing around.

Make no mistake, Transmission Gully will be a fantastic asset when it’s completed, but it has become a byword for delays and cost overruns. Originally budgeted at $850 million, it’s now past $1.25 billion and climbing. Meanwhile the completion date – originally April 2020 – has been pushed out to the end of next month, and only the most deluded optimist expects it to be achieved. 

It will then be six years since construction began. A small point of comparison: the Suez and Panama canals were built in 10 years.

Okay, Transmission Gully is a big, complex project on difficult terrain, and it was disrupted by earthquakes and Covid-19. But an independent inquiry identified multiple flaws in the way it’s been managed and the New Zealand Transport Agency, as the public partner responsible for spending the taxpayers’ dollars, must ultimately carry the can.

Could there be a less competent government department? Almost everything the NZTA gets involved in turns pear-shaped.

All of this raises an intriguing question. I’m old enough to remember when the Ministry of Works and Development successfully undertook some formidably challenging highway construction jobs. The Napier-Taupo road – once fiendishly dusty, twisty and hard on gearboxes, brakes and radiators – was one. Another was the Mangaweka/Taihape stretch of SH1.  

It beggars belief that they were built without the benefit of white utes, high-vis vests and traffic cones. How the hell did they do it? Whatever their secret, those old-school MWD engineers and roading contractors must have carried it to their graves.



Anna Mouse said...

Careful Karl, do not put the boot into Woke-a-Two Kahuis. You might be called out as being a Right Wing supremist.

Tinman said...

I'm still trying to figure out why speeds are reduced and cones are placed because, potentially, someone is working approximately 10 metres to the side of the road (At one stage just south of Hinds the work was actually in a fenced paddock beside the road).

Kiwiwit said...

The cones often just delineate the area that the workmen use to park their personal vehicles. Often this area is on an adjacent road to the one being worked on so there is no legitimate reason at all for the impact on the traffic flow. You also see this around building construction sites in central Wellington, where half the streets are constricted at any time just to provide free parking for the construction workers. It reminds me (with frustration) of the story of the building of the Empire State Building in New York that I read several years ago. The tallest building in the world at the time took just 10 months to complete and all construction activity was confined to the site - there was no impact on traffic on the surrounding streets at any time during construction.

Odysseus said...

The laying out of the cones and their being gathered in again is a ritual with clearly a deep religious significance, much like the cargo cult observed in parts of the Pacific following WWII. The presence of the cones is intended to propitiate certain local spirits who might otherwise be minded to disrupt any proceedings that could, conceivably, get underway. The men and women standing around in hi viz jackets you have observed are in fact supplicants, while the flashing orange lights on the white utes (white is of course the colour of religious purity) are intended to summon the benign deities of the locality. I'm sure if you had stopped to ask, as much of this would have been explained to you as was judged sufficient to make you go away. These "mysteries", which clearly lie beyond your understanding, are conducted under the supervision of Waka Kotahi whose very name is an expression of the ineffability of pseudo-religious practice in today's modern Aotearoan bureaucracy.

Don Franks said...

There are rather a lot of cones out there, some of them appearing under employed. I've found it handy to keep a couple in the shed, to pop out the front and keep a space in anticipation of a firewood delivery. You can also trim one a bit to make a working vaudeville band megaphone.

Hiko said...

This has long been a subject of contention in our household
A whole battalion of drones sucking on the resources of our tax dollar.
it takes at least two massive trucks six workers placing cones and waving flags etc etc
to get one weedeater working on the side of the highway
Great business if you can tap into it

Chris Morris said...

One of the major causes of delays and cost over-runs on Transmission Gully was the contract variations. This forced redesigns and in some cases rework. And many of these were big ticket items like beautification. It will also be late because of these lockdowns so that is more variations.
It is interesting though to see that one of these changes was to make it safe at 110km/h. I am betting that won't be the posted limit.

Colin said...

Karl, you have committed a grave error - you have referred to NZ Transport Agency without using any words that can be read by Maoris

Eamon Sloan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CXH said...

Are you sure Maori names are gifted. I would bet there is an accompanying invoice somewhere.

JeffW said...

I suspect the supplier gets paid by the cone, and that the OSH ‘expert” who specifies the number of cones gets an excellent lunch at Christmas and other times of the year, perhaps All Black tickets etc.

hughvane said...

I would commend Wayne Brown's latest article about the competence - or otherwise - of those who make decisions about the necessities of our lives, including power and - well I never - vaccinations! What is said can be extended to NZTA and roading.

It can be read here: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/wayne-brown-power-port-vaccine-rollout-why-are-all-these-stuff-ups-happening/SDMWA4FP5L2DWKMTRCVYKEJ2DQ/

Russell Parkinson said...

Think ministry of health, education and oranga tamariki and all their incompetence transferred to NZTA and you will understand why they are so inefficient. Given all of what is going on in NZ at the moment do you seriously expect any better from any of the public service?

I work for a land development company, we build new roads from scratch to fully finished in a couple of months. It’s easy when your sales depend on it. In fact it takes longer to get consents than it does to build.

Even when using private companies NZTA management, approvals and funding slows the process down and adds about 20% to the costs.

It will only get worse.

david said...

Karl the transfer of all the roading work to the private sector was a success. It led to lower costs, better decision making and better technology. It separated policy from operations, which is generally seen as a good thing. However in doing so it removed the ability of the operations people to stamp on silly ideas emanating from the policy wonks. When it was Ministry of Works, the powerful directors were those in the operations divisions because they had lots of staff and spent lots of money. They were able to persuade the planning people to keep a nice flow of work coming so their boys would have work to do. Now these functions are separate, policy people can come up with bright ideas to increase workplace safety and they don't have any financial responsibility. Daft ideas can be given free reign.

blacklerann@gmail.com said...

I have not investigated, so someone can help me out here, but I presumed we would be importing all of those cones from China. As for the placement of the cones. Not something any Tom Dick or Mary can do. Oh no. This has to be undertaken by a fully qualified 'Cone Placement Technician'. Meaning a tutor has to oversee a course that the applicant must succeed in, before being given their certification. So now we have created several more jobs which add to the cost of any project. The best scenario I have stumbled across, is the $-hundred million cost overrun of the proposed Mt Messenger by-pass, caused by a dope grower, who can afford to pay his legal bills in cash, as he loses court appeal, after court appeal. Police claim they are too busy with 'P' investigations, so don't have time to investigate marijuana growers.

Terry M said...

Karl, it has long been my theory that most of these cones do not, in fact, have any purpose at all. Some time ago someone bought a huge shipload for a job that was cancelled, so they must now be stored somewhere. Every Thursday some highly qualified official runs through a list of road names and thinks, ha, we haven't used that one for a while, and instructs his minions to spend Friday shuffling as many cones as possible. My husband and I can usually be heard on the weekend, as we pass idle cones strung out along a road that does not seem to be involved in any activity, past, present or future, muttering darkly "cone storage". This explains it all.