OPINION: Councils around the country are under intense pressure to cut costs.
In tough economic times, ratepayers demand extra financial prudence to keep rate rises down.
At the same time there is an expectation that infrastructure and community facilities will be maintained, improved or developed, and the price of that work has risen. Something has to give.
In the Tasman District Council's case, part of its savings are coming from an unheralded policy change in 2010.
It involves the non-replacement and gradual removal of road marker posts on backcountry roads, as well as not repainting the white centre and road edge lines as they are resurfaced.
The council says the savings have reached $250,000 this year, and are expected to increase as the programme rolls out.
The policy became more visible recently as the council began removing marker posts from roads already missing some through non-replacement.
That has provoked a strong reaction in rural communities such as Murchison to Tapawera, with many arguing that cost-cutting is being put above road safety.
The original policy change argues that the inconsistent use of markings on some backcountry roads can increase driving risks. On narrow, rural roads, having fewer markings is more likely to leave drivers less confident, making them go slower, a 2010 staff report says.
The report cites 1989 Transit New Zealand guidelines that do not recommend markings on some very low-volume rural roads, and says research suggests centrelines may increase accidents on very narrow roads.
But no other New Zealand council is known to have adopted a marker removal policy similar to Tasman's. The head of the country's local authority traffic institute, Andy Foster, makes the logical point that the markings were put in to help motorists drive more safely. Taking them out increases the risks.
Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne has defended the policy, saying the council has to cut costs and lower service levels. If there are particular safety issues they will be addressed, he says, and the council is retaining markers around hazards, such as sharp bends, bridges and culverts.
Tasman has a roading budget of $20 million, a fifth of its total operating costs, because it has to maintain a far-flung network totalling almost 1700 kilometres. Its Government roading subsidy over the next three years is the same as it received for the previous three.
Its need to cut costs is understandable, but there must be better places to start than an area that could affect public safety.
Local residents cite examples such as a resealed 1km stretch of the Tadmor-Glenhope road that no longer has a white centre line. At night in an area prone to fog, the lack of markings will add to the danger, a regular user says.
For the sake of relatively modest savings, and with the perception - at least - of an increased safety risk, a council U-turn on the policy would be welcomed.
- © Fairfax NZ News