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Your Interview: Martin McMahon of the Highways Agency
11:50am Saturday 2nd February 2013 in News
In The Argus weekly feature your Interview, we give you, our readers, the chance to ask key figures and groups across Sussex the questions you want answered. This week Martin McMahon, asset development team leader for Sussex and Kent Highways Agency
Algeria Touchshriek: Why did the A23 roadworks close from Dec 20 to Jan 7? Why such long holidays when there is rarely snow and ice over that period?
MARTIN Mcmahon (MM): At Christmas, and also for other big public holidays, we suspend or complete roadworks wherever we can to make sure that the roads are as clear of restrictions as possible, because we know that the holidays are busy periods when lots of people will be making important journeys. This Christmas we lifted or completed 185 sets of roadworks, meaning the network was 99 per cent roadworks-free.
We know from feedback that our customers really appreciate that. I understand that for longer roadworks some people might like us to just carry on and get the work finished quickly. But in reality it would not save much time, as we plan the work in phases around these periods and much of the construction industry closes down during the Christmas period anyway.
The A23 project is tightly scheduled and controlled – we identified cost savings of £28million before we started work and we’re on target to finish on time in summer 2014.
Of course, all our on-road teams – the people who clean up after accidents, who make sure that the roads are salted ahead of cold weather and who carry out urgent repairs – keep working 24 hours a day, every day of the year to keep the road network running.
ANON: How are the roads holding up since the snow and ice? Have reports of pot holes increased? If so what are you going to be doing about them?
MM: Our roads have held up pretty well, I think. The recent cold weather was a good test of our plans, and we’ll review our arrangements as we do each year to identify any improvements we can make to start next winter even more prepared.
When it comes to things like potholes, I think prevention is better than cure and that by keeping the roads in a good state of repair we can do a lot to reduce the risk of them forming in the first place.
Because of the type of roads that we manage, defects such as potholes have the potential to be a real accident risk – any pothole that we think might pose a threat to safety will have a temporary repair made within 24 hours, and be fully repaired within a month. We’ve not noticed a particular spike in potholes this winter, either in terms of reports from customers or from our own regular inspections.
BrightonHoveboy: When a company digs the road up, why is there no ‘warranty’ system in place whereby the company is held to account for not leaving the road in the condition it was before they started digging it up?
MM: I think this is probably more of a problem in town and city centres than on the motorways and major A roads that we look after. But you’re absolutely right that when utility companies replace the road surface it should be to the same condition it was in before they started work – in fact this is a requirement. If they do not, we can insist that they come back and resurface again, or we can do it ourselves and bill them for it.
We will always do our best to make sure that any utility company working on our network carries out their work to a high standard and encourage them to keep traffic moving as well as they can. To be fair to them, they are generally pretty responsible about this.
Charlie Rae: What is the point of the average speed cameras on dual carriageways and motorways? Are they ever in use?
MM: Speed cameras can be a useful tool in improving road safety, but they are not the only tool and we use them pretty sparingly. For us, the best speed camera is one that takes no fines at all, but which encourages drivers to keep within the speed limit.
We mostly use average speed cameras through roadworks, where there are additional hazards and distractions which mean that it’s especially important that people keep within the speed limit. Safety at roadworks is a real priority for us, both for the people working just a few feet away from moving traffic (imagine that in your workplace) and for road users themselves.
Drivers’ compliance with the speed limit with average speed cameras is extremely good, more than 99 per cent through the A23 roadworks in fact.
Cyclingcommuter: Why has the A27 roadworks in Lancing overrun so badly?
MM: You’re right that we’re a few weeks behind schedule, and we’re sorry for the disruption that’s caused. There was some pretty atrocious weather which slowed us down, and we were working in an extremely flexible way, changing the roadworks several times each day and taking them away at peak times. This helped us to keep traffic moving, but occasionally held up progress.
Had we taken a different approach – for example, closing the road for a number of weeks and completing the work in a single hit – we could have been more certain about a finish date, but the traffic disruption would have been horrendous.
It’s about trying to strike the right balance. In this case, we finished the work requiring the most restrictions before Christmas, and we’re now carrying out the remaining work using minimal traffic restrictions.
Simply assigning more people to a project is rarely the solution, as many project tasks need to be completed one after another and there is a limit to how many people can be safely accommodated on site.
The Argus: Can you explain why the A27 flooded repeatedly over Christmas, and failed to drain, despite months of work on the section near Shoreham?
MM: The drainage upgrade had not been finished, so I don’t think it’s fair to expect that the improvements would have been fully operational. When the project is complete, we are confident that drivers will notice the difference.
But let’s be clear – the drainage capacity of any road is finite and when there has been exceptional rainfall in an area where the water table is already high, and the whole surrounding area is underwater (as was the case on this section of the A27 at Christmas) flooding on the road will still be a risk.
ANON: How did the agency prepare for the freezing temperatures and problematic snow in weeks previous? Were you caught by surprise?
MM: Our commitment to drivers during periods of cold weather is simple and steadfast – we will do everything we possibly can to keep the roads free of ice and snow.
We have detailed, tested plans that we review and strengthen every year. We get regular specialised weather forecasts several times each day. We have state-of-the-art equipment, including a new fleet of salting vehicles that we introduced in Sussex in 2010. And we have a dedicated, professional team with crews who are ready to go out and salt the roads at any time, day or night. We are on full winter footing from October to April every year, and can salt our entire network within three hours of severe weather being forecast.
The recent cold spell, which had regular sub-zero temperatures over several weeks, was a good test of these plans, and I think they held up well.
It’s important to remember though that British winters are unpredictable and when the weather is particularly severe, even the best plans can’t guarantee that the road will be completely free of disruption. When that happens, our focus switches to getting things back to normal as quickly as possible.
Sarah McAlan: What is the Highways Agency going to do about the inadequate road links between coastal towns on the south coast, especially Sussex? The A27 goes through Worthing and Chichester on its way from Brighton to Portsmouth and it is a single lane from Lewes to Eastbourne and from Eastbourne to Hastings.
MM: The kind of improvements you are talking about are major infrastructure upgrades and are just the kind of projects that we have a proven track record of delivering on time and on budget. We’re delivering 16 such projects between 2010 and 2015 (the A23 Handcross to Warninglid project is one of them), which will bring economic benefits worth billions.
However, we do not make the big investment decisions that lead to these projects – they are taken by the Department for Transport and the Treasury. You may have heard that the Government is looking at ways that a big increase in roads funding can be delivered, and a feasibility study into this is being carried out by the department and is due to report to the Prime Minister this spring. The Highways Agency is looking forward to being part of the solution.
In the meantime, the A27 has not been forgotten. We have plans for a multimillion pound upgrade of the Chichester bypass, which is in the pipeline for after 2015. And next year we will be carrying out a smaller-scale scheme to improve the pinch point at Ford roundabout near Arundel, which we have planned with local enterprise partnerships to help support the creation of 10,400 new jobs and 8,400 new homes by 2020. And you might remember the upgrade we carried out on the A27 between Southerham and Beddingham which opened in 2008, adding an extra lane and removing a level crossing.
ANON: When large projects are under way on the roads – for example the A23 at Handcross – why does the whole area have to be coned off or under speed restrictions when work is only taking place on a small part of the stretch?
MM: We always try and take the right approach to roadworks, striking the right balance between keeping traffic moving and getting the job done quickly and safely. For some projects, for example the drainage improvement work we are doing on the A27 near Lancing, we use the roadworks very flexibly, putting restrictions out exactly as and when we need them and removing all restrictions at the busiest times.
The A23 upgrade is a massive job and will literally transform that section of the A23, widening it and straightening it out to make journeys faster, safer and more reliable. We’re working in a very constrained site – it is very long and thin, and our teams are working just feet away from moving traffic.
We’re working hard to keep two lanes open in both directions at all peak times throughout construction, and have a phased approach to the roadworks, changing the road layout through the roadworks as we go, and regularly review if there’s anything more we can do to keep traffic moving.
JAMES McARTHER: Why can’t more manpower be provided from the ranks of the unemployed for this relatively unskilled work, to make it happen quicker and provide a genuine boost for local economies?
MM: I don’t think I agree with your assessment here – our workforce has an incredibly diverse range of skills and our supply chain includes some very specialised sub-contractors, as well as some of the biggest names in the construction industry. However, it is true that the industry is a big employer and you’re right to highlight the economic benefits that road improvements can bring.
The vast majority of the work on our network is delivered on our behalf by the private companies in our supply chain, and we do not interfere with their recruitment policies. It’s the Highways Agency’s role to make sure the work is carried out in a way that provides real value for taxpayers and a safe, reliable network for road users. And we’re committed to doing it.
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