Closures, safety problems, delays and disruptions are fraying tempers in the capital as the DFAT/ADB-funded Port Vila Urban Development Project lurches on.
In a March interview, Vanuatu Project Management Unit staff assured the Daily Post that road safety concerns were being raised during regular weekly meetings, and that cautions had been issued.
They seem to have had no effect.
Since then, the Daily Post has witnessed numerous safety issues in areas currently being worked on as part of the Australia-funded Port Vila Urban Development Project. Just this week, the driver of a road compactor was seen trying to manage traffic from the driver’s seat of his machine as he attempted to work on a section of road in Nambatu.
No flag crew was evident, in spite of the fact that the work in this section was evidently planned and still ongoing as of yesterday.
Drivers at the scene were obviously confused, as contradictory indicator lights were seen, and vehicles were seen slowing, stopping and abruptly changing direction.
At nearly the same time, drivers entering the USP roundabout were being waved through the middle of the circular core of the roundabout by workers standing on the opposite side of the road. Again, no traffic flow signs were present. And again, confusion was rife, with one near-collision witnessed by the Daily Post at the time.
No traffic management (i.e. STOP/SLOW) signs, barriers, traffic cones or other guides were visible in either location.
In the past, responsibility was laid on subcontractors, but in these particular cases, only RMS workers were visible.
The Daily Post submitted a written request for comment to the Vanuatu Project Management Unit two days ago, asking what steps had been taken to end these flagrant road safety lapses, and why these issues kept recurring.
A VPMU spokesman responded, indicating that a response was forthcoming, but would have to be approved ‘through protocols’. This is standard procedure in a number of donor-funded projects where messaging is strictly controlled. Both Roughton, the managing contractor, nor RMS, responsible for the actual construction work, are contractually obligated not to discuss the project with the media.
Shortly after this article was finalised for print publication, a further comment was received from the VPMU:
"VPMU continues to remind the contractor of the paramount importance of safety. There can be no excuse for the lack of flag crews at the work sites. It’s simply not acceptable. We will follow-up with contractor to find out why no flag crew were available."
This is the third time the Daily Post has reported on serious road safety concerns, first in September 2017, and then in January of this year, and again in March.
Tempers were flaring on social media this week concerning this much-delayed project, as work at the USP roundabout caused what one disgruntled motorist described as ‘gridlock’. The motorist reported only 200 metres of progress over a nearly twenty-minute period on Wednesday morning.
Others reported that they had resorted to leaving before 07:00 each morning, because the alternative was to arrive late at work.
In March, a road safety awareness campaign was announced, and while it’s understood that work is ongoing, sources have confirmed that it is not proceeding according to schedule.
Reports from people intimately familiar with the project have consistently described a confusing, slow-moving and inefficient environment, in which planning was difficult at best.
The scope of the road construction portion of the project, which also comprises drainage work, septage facilities and public sanitation facilities, has been repeatedly cut back. Currently under review is whether plans for the section of roadway between the Nambatu roundabout and the wharf turn-off will be cut.
In March, the Daily Post reported that the “project was designed and supervised by Roughton, a multinational consultancy founded in 1952 in the UK. RMS, based in Townsville, Australia, was selected as the contractor.
“US $14 million (nearly VT 1.5 billion) was allocated to RMS to complete the work. The remainder of the money, roughly US $21 million, was allocated to administration, planning and supervision, according to the VPMU.”
The VPMU has since confirmed that Roughton’s contract will be allowed to end without renewal in June, and that they reserve the right to hire another contract to complete the work, which is scheduled to end in September. The Asian Development Bank and DFAT, who are financing the project, are reportedly prepared to allow it to drag on as long as December.
A request for a financial status report was submitted to the VPMU at the same time as these road safety concerns. Based on information received so far, it appears that the cost has risen to approximately US $1.84 million per kilometre of road, which is more than the World Bank recommends for new roadway construction in built up areas.
This article differs from the print edition. A statement from VPMU was received after the print edition was finalised. The comment has been included in the online version.