General Road Maintenance Retrospective

This review has been contributed principally by Dr Richard Robinson.

The past thirty years has seen an enormous change in our understanding of the importance of road maintenance, and in our approach to carrying it out in economically developing countries and those in transition. The subject has moved from being a dull and routine 'low-tech' activity to one that is the main occupation of many road engineers and network managers, with the availability of complex and computer based methods for its planning and management. This change started towards the end of the 1970s when, particularly at the World Bank, there was something of a revolution in understanding of the key importance of maintenance in the road sector. There were two main reasons for this.

Firstly, at that time, new roads built in the mid-1950s normally with a 20-year pavement design life, were falling into disrepair and needed major reconstruction, rather than just the more modest pavement renewals and overlays that had been anticipated. This was compounded because roads constructed in the mid-1960s had been built with typically shorter design lives of only ten years; these later roads were also disintegrating. Failure to maintain these roads was causing an unforeseen surge in the need for expensive rehabilitation.

Secondly, the World Bank along with the UK's Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) were developing the first in the series of 'HDM' road management models. Field work had been undertaken in Kenya to produce quantitative relationships between vehicle operating costs and road deterioration under a range of design and maintenance standards. The HDM model was originally intended to assist with determining the optimum time to upgrade gravel roads to paved standard. At the time, this was the main focus of the Bank's lending in the road sector. However, when the model was used in earnest, it soon became clear that one of the key parameters dictating the rates of return on road investment was the maintenance regime applied during the road's life. Typically for every one dollar not spent on road maintenance, around three dollars additional cost was imposed on road users.

Until this time, road maintenance had been viewed simply as an unimportant, routine and straightforward technical activity. The new understanding of the impact of maintenance on rates of return of road infrastructure investment, coupled with the realisation that maintenance was not being carried out on World Bank projects (despite the existence of loan covenants), led the Bank to investigate the problem further. The findings were set out in the 1979 report The Road Maintenance Problem and International Assistance (updated in 1981). This seminal publication identified the multi-dimensional nature of the road maintenance problem in terms of attitudes, finance, staffing, management and institutional arrangements. Problems were related only weakly to technical issues. This understanding required a fundamental rethink in the approach taken by the road authorities, World Bank and other agencies involved with the road sector.

The recognition that good road maintenance was dependent mainly on the 'soft' institutional, financial and managerial issues posed something of a dilemma. Engineers involved in the sector had little, if any, experience and training in these areas. The Bank report made a number of general recommendations about how the problems could be addressed but provided little specific guidance on the corrective steps that should be taken.

The 1981 TRL Overseas Road Note 1 'Maintenance Management for District Engineers was one of the first ever guidance documents on managing, rather than carrying out, maintenance. It offered simple step-by-step advice on key activities. The Road Note has been updated regularly by TRL and is now in its third edition. However, addressing institutional and financial problems in an effective manner remained elusive.

It was not until the mid-1990s that the next major breakthrough occurred when the Road Maintenance Initiative (RMI) was launched in Africa with the support of the World Bank and a number of other development agencies. Under the guidance of Ian Heggie, the RMI for the first time involved road users and the private sector in the discussions about how to address the maintenance problem. Despite reservations from the government sector, this proved to be the key to unlocking solutions. Road users have their own vested interests in improved road conditions and, therefore, the maintenance necessary to assure these. Users may be willing to pay for roads, but only if money is seen to be spent on maintaining and improving the network. In return, road users expect the work to be done efficiently, and are more likely to demand value-for-money. As such, involvement of road users created a surrogate market discipline to encourage road administrations to use resources more efficiently. Joint discussions between road users and sector specialists in a number of countries led to the 1995 World Bank Technical Paper 275 Managing and Financing Roads: an Agenda for Reform by Ian Heggie) . This outlined the concept of the four building-blocks for road sector reform that have proved vital for effective maintenance of the principal road network assets by:

  1. creating ownership by involving users in decision-making about roads,
  2. establishing responsibility through regulatory and institutional development,
  3. providing adequate, stable and continuous finance through tariff reform, and
  4. strengthening management through commercialisation.

The key principle of the Agenda for Reform was that the major national road networks were 'big business' and should be treated as such in the way they were operated and managed. Its main proposals can be summarised as:

  1. supervision of the road sector by boards with strong private-sector road-user representation,
  2. establishment of commercially-based (second-generation) road funds based on road-user charges,
  3. road administrations operating in a similar way to commercial businesses, and
  4. wherever possible using the private sector under competitive arrangements.

There is no doubt that implementation of these principles by a number of countries, often with strong support from international financing institutions, has seen significant improvements in the main road networks. This has been demonstrated through improved attitudes to road maintenance by governments, increased levels of funding, and more effective management working through more appropriate institutional arrangements. Many countries have achieved better road network conditions, which have benefited road users and the economy more generally.

Technical Paper 275 set out the framework and aims for reform, while others have provided key insights on the steps necessary to make reforms happen. Antti Talvitie's 1997 paper International Experience in Restructuring the Road Sector, in Transportation Research Record 1558, set out the evolutionary steps that have been observed in road sector organisations seeking to improve their operations. The paper charts the progress from 'public works departments' to the kind of institutional structures now in place in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and some other countries. More recently, in the Institutional Development chapter of Road Engineering for Development (2004),the logic and theory behind Talvitie's evolutionary steps was further developed to explain and show how these are likely to lead to increased effectiveness and efficiency. This work has underpinned the strategies for road sector reforms that have been pioneered in Central and Eastern Europe by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Recent reform initiatives include the use of long-term, area-wide, performance-based road maintenance contracts (PBC) and private finance through public-private partnership (PPP) arrangements. These are demonstrating benefits in transferring to the private sector those risks that can be managed more effectively than by government. They place the focus for maintenance works strongly on delivering a quality level-of-service for road users, they reduce the cost of works, and are successful in forcing the provision of adequate maintenance funding over the longer-term. Given the progress of the past 30 years, there is no doubt that further innovations will be forthcoming in the years ahead. However, there is still a need for many more countries to embrace a maintenance-reform agenda. There is still a long way to go before all countries provide maintained major road networks that meet the continuing needs of traffic in an efficient and safe manner. Road maintenance remains a complex and challenging process in which much reform in still necessary. It is salutary to quote the 1981 World Bank report on timescales: "Building institutional capacity for maintenance is much more difficult than building road networks...none has taken less than ten years in practice."

A concluding point regarding road maintenance in general is that assessment of existing maintenance capacity and planning for maintenance should be integrated into the planning, design and construction process for any road investment. Maintenance programmes have often failed because the roads that were constructed led to maintenance burdens that were beyond the capacities and resources of those responsible for this task. There is considerable scope for improving rural road investment performance with increased attention to this fundamental issue.

Dr Richard Robinson's recent paper A Perspective on Road Sector Restructuring in Developing and Transitional Countries is also an important contribution to the maintenance reform debate.

Further sources of information

This review has focused on the reforms in management of the main road networks. Further information on rural minor roads and road maintenance in general can be accessed through the following links:


If you would like to make a contribution to this topic or help to 'sign-post' any key documents on the topic for gTKP partners and users, please contact Rob Petts:

Updated March 2010