Will potholes be the death of us?
It is an amazing recurrence! Every time there is a heavy shower of rain anywhere in Jamaica potholes of a wide variety appear all over the roads, even those that were recently paved.
This gives any well-thinking and discerning Jamaican reason to assume that the quality of work was poor. However, when one compares roads built and maintained by the bauxite companies over these many years as well as by the Chinese in more recent times with those built by Jamaicans, it is fair to say that the roads built and repaired by Jamaican contractors remain the most fragile and pothole-riddled.
Of course, it is no secret that corruption is at the heart of this problem, coupled with the lack of effective civil engineering applications. Indeed, many people who get contracts are usually highly favoured through their partisan affiliation. The million-dollar question is: Who really checks the qualifications and competence of these contractors?
It is no secret that cheap, shoddy workmanship has become the order of the day when it comes to government-contracted work. Cutting corners, using inferior material, avoiding professional input, and providing little supervision of subcontractors are part and parcel of how projects funded by the public purse are implemented and managed. Notwithstanding the vigilance of the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) and various parliamentary oversight committees, the Jamaican taxpayer continues to be the victim of graft and corruption.
Despite various election campaign promises, neither the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) nor the People’s National Party (PNP) has sent the right signals to suggest that either is more serious about getting value for money, especially when it comes to road building and repairs. It is no secret that both parties in one way or another benefit from kickbacks with respect to government contracts, and roadworks continue to be one of the most lucrative of the various pork barrel exercises in the political arena.
Of course, it is more than a coincidence that there is always an upsurge in road repairs when local government and general elections are on the horizon. And based on recent activities and announcements by the ruling Jamaica Labour Party Administration, it is clear that this scenario is about to take centre stage right across the island. Can Prime Minister Andrew Holness assure a sceptical nation that this time round there will be transparency and accountability in terms of the awarding of contracts as well as the allocation of these roadworks in the various constituencies?
If it is that Jamaica is among countries with the most roads per square mile in the world, then it can be said that a large portion of our gross domestic product (GDP) is being expended in this area. In the meantime, now that we are in the rainy season and serious weather patterns will emerge as a result of a burgeoning hurricane season, it is expected that many of our roads will be adversely affected. And as is expected, at some point, Prime Minister Holness will be announcing yet another multibillion-dollar allocation to address this perennial problem.
Another vexing aspect of the prevalence of pothole-ridden roads is the damage done to motor vehicles, particularly taxis and minibuses. Operators of these vehicles have to constantly use much of their income from carrying passengers to deal with front-end damage and other repairs. Private motorists nowadays have been complaining a great deal about brand-new tyres being wrecked by some of these cavernous potholes, some of which appear overnight.
And to add insult to injury (no pun intended), avoiding potholes has been rather hazardous on some occasions, causing much bodily harm and even death, not to mention wreckage of vehicles. The proliferation of potholes must undoubtedly affect the nation’s productivity as too many hours are wasted on our roads because motorists have to slow down as they bob and weave around one pothole after another.
Drain cleaning and bushing, which are oftentimes referred to as bollo work, given out at Christmastime as well as during election campaigns, is another travesty. Millions of dollars are expended, yet at the end of the day, whenever it rains, flooding easily destroys the road surfaces because of poor drainage (curb and channel) construction and design. The vexing question that must be asked of the National Works Agency (NWA) is: Are civil engineers assigned to all government-contracted roadworks? And if so, who monitors them and their input? Are there really meaningful checks and balances and what sanctions and penalties, if any, are in place to deal with these anomalies?
This recurring problem is a national crisis that must be addressed once and for all by the powers that be, starting with the prime minister and his Cabinet. A national protocol must be established along bipartisan lines as to how road repairs should be carried out, in terms of quality control, transparency, and accountability.
Jamaica continues to feature very negatively on the corruption perception index radar worldwide. This is a most worrying trend, and one suspects that even while much emphasis is being placed on tackling crime and violence, this issue of our pothole-riddled roads must also be seen as deserving of national attention and attacked on a united front. For too long our respective political leaders have collectively ignored this huge elephant in the room while paying lip service when it suits them.
To put it bluntly, unless some meaningful and sustained efforts are made to deal with this perilous situation, it is safe to say potholes will be the death of us!
Lloyd B Smith has been involved full-time in Jamaican media for the past 47 years. He has also served as a Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. He hails from western Jamaica where he is popularly known as the Governor. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.