While much of the focus on poor road quality surrounds infrastructural issues, another cause for concern, according to many in the industry, is the standard of engineering, especially in regional corporations.
According to contractor and former president of the Contractors Association of Trinidad and Tobago Mikey Joseph, maintenance and contracting at regional corporations are often out of line.
“Their adherence to best practice and ensuring quality, and all that, in terms of their construction, in general, has been a problem for a long time,” Joseph said.
It’s not that the road work is necessarily beyond their scope, he said, but it could be plain laziness or even corruption in some instances.
There’s also the issue of the standard of engineers employed there, he said.
“The problem is that engineers at those departments, they are not veterans. They are straight out of school,” he added.
JCC president and civil engineer Fazir Khan acknowledged that while both the regional corporations and Ministry of Works and Transport have qualified engineers, there could be problems with adequate training.
The issue, he said, is present in the private sector as well, adding that, “It’s one thing to have a degree, but it doesn’t make you a professional engineer.”
He admitted that professional bodies like the Association of Professional Engineers of Trinidad and Tobago and the Board of Engineers of Trinidad and Tobago are supposed to nurture young engineers and make sure they are adequately trained.
However, he claimed that an institutional problem is working against that possibility.
To improve the standard of engineering, he proposed amendments to the Engineering Professions Act.
He believed that there should be a mandatory registration of engineers, as well as mandatory professional development.
“To keep your status as a professional engineer, you would have to do a certain amount of professional development units, and training, every year – similar to the medical discipline,” Khan said.
While the standard of work carried out by regional corporations, and its engineers, is often subject to criticism, many councillors maintain that they are placed in an unfair position because of the shortcomings of the road maintenance system.
According to UNC councillor for Mon Desir Deryck Bowrin, while the Siparia Regional Corporation was given $78 million in the last budget, the vast majority of the money is designated for operational costs and salaries.
The regional corporation’s nine districts, he said, were given $7 million in developmental programme funding to split among them.
That left him with no funding for cemeteries, $300,000 for drains and another $300,000 for roads.
“$300,000 might pave about 600 feet of roadway here, so that is nothing in the whole scheme of things. And, when you pave from here to the next road, they’ll say you only care about those people and you don’t care about the next set of people,” Bowrin said.
Something has to change in the system he noted.
Otherwise, road conditions will continue to decline at a rate beyond what regional corporations can afford to maintain and repair.
“I know the Government brought property tax, and it’s supposed to go to the corporations. I don’t know how that’s going to play off. With that, obviously, it will help,” the Mon Desir councillor said.
“It’s really difficult for any councillor in this country…We want to do things, but you cannot get the resources to do things,” he added.
Increasingly, according to several councillors, to bridge the gap, private companies are stepping in to pay for paving in some communities.
In late January, for example, 16 businessmen pooled resources to pave two miles of the Dignity Link Road in Barrackpore.
Main roads and highways, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Works and Transport, aren’t without their engineering shortcomings.
Drainage issues are of particular concern, according to transportation engineer and UWI senior lecturer Dr Trevor Townsend.
“The surface (of the road) is supposed to provide a skid-proof surface. Underneath that, we have the granular base, which is supposed to be free draining and dry, but if you have poor roadside drainage, and water collecting the drains, then you have water seeping into the base of the road, compromising the structure,” he said.
He suggested that the authorities would be better off with more regular consultation with transportation engineers, saying, “If you look at the level of respect given to public health
officials in the context of COVID when people say we are driven by the science and data, I would love to hear about that in transportation as well…that the ministry says I’m being driven by science and data.”
Despite all the issues affecting the condition of the country’s roads, by all accounts, there is no detailed or structured data programme, allowing the relevant actors to make informed decisions going forward.
“We have a problem. A lot of public bodies have a problem collecting data. There are public bodies spending public money to collect data, on behalf of the public, but this data is not made available to the public,” Khan lamented.
“We have a third-world mindset and it occurs in most of our state agencies…this belief that they need to hold on to the data,” he added.
As a comparison, he said if a US-based engineer wanted to construct a road in a swamp in Florida, they could pull up all the relevant data, like traffic count or rainfall, needed on a public website.
The first-world, he said, has seen the value in making that sort of information available through open-source data.
“It also strikes at the heart of cost – it takes time and cost to buy these things. For example, if I’m doing a road project in Matura, and I need to get rainfall data, I have to write a letter to the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service and then they will tell me I have to pay $5,000 to get the information necessary to create the appropriate drainage design,” Khan said.
That is the sort of mindset that the country needs to move away from in treating with data, he said.
“The Government is on the right track of trying to make everything online. Everybody has been forced into that situation, as we are here. We can take advantage of it. We can pivot from it, and make sure we don’t go back to the old way,” the civil engineer added.
However, while Khan wants data to be shared more frequently, Townsend doubts that traffic data is being collected regularly.
He believes that attempts to get data, like traffic trends to make informed predictions, for example, would be difficult.
“This is a retrograde step. In another incarnation, I was involved as the chief traffic engineer and when the branch was set up, it was set up with one of the responsibilities of continuous collection of road traffic data,” Townsend said.
Data like vehicle kilometres driven, total traffic, truck traffic, fuel consumption, and other transportation measures ought to be collected continuously at random sites nationally to inform policies and decisions that affect road quality, he said, but that isn’t being done.
“So that is a problem – the attitude towards data and its public dissemination, but you see it starts with data not being collected because it hasn’t been seen as important,” he said.
“In times of crisis, you have to do more planning before you act, and to do proper planning, you need to have proper data and analysis.” Townsend added.
With deteriorating roads and pipelines competing for reduced funding, he said, the country has important decisions to make in prioritizing where is refurbished, what is refurbished and how it is refurbished.
Without these decisions being driven by data, he said, the authorities will always fall short in maintaining existing roadways.
“If you catch a crack in your pavement (road) in time, you will solve the problem. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and on the roadway, it is a definite element. If you catch it in time, you can solve it as a short-term problem,” Townsend said.
Engineer Lacey Williams agreed with both Townsend and Khan saying that understanding the shortcomings in the system, through data, can allow more effective strategising.
“You may not be able to rehabilitate the matter 100%, but if I can chip away at 60-70 per cent, am I in a better position? Definitely,” Williams said.
Maintenance of existing assets, like roads, have been overlooked, he said, because of the country’s financial privileges of the past.
“Some of the metrics we would use to justice how we actually maintain roads and preserve the asset, those just weren’t taken into consideration. So, I would say that is a big part of the reason why we are here,” he said.
“There was never really any pressure to justify the development or expansion of the particular network or maintenance of the asset through stated policies and strategies,” Williams added.
Khan said with a tightened purse for State agencies, it’s time to try different things to be able to afford road maintenance.
He suggested something late prime Mminister Patrick Manning put forward back in 2010 – toll roads.
“That is a way the public pays for the maintenance of the road…we have no choice but to look at these measures for raising money…and to bring private money into the public space, in order to maintain our infrastructure,” Khan said.
He also suggested that people already on the government’s payroll, like CEPEP workers, be re-trained and re-tooled to do preventative road maintenance at regional corporations.
Will the advice of these experts be taken into consideration, or rather, will the country continue along the same old road?