Road improvements to aid in economic recovery

The improvement of road networks in countries in the Asia Pacific region is expected to increase the chance of a much quicker economic recovery from the pandemic.

In its latest blog, Asian Development Bank (ADB) experts Chen Chen and Ravi Peri said the roads that paved the way for delivery of supplies and services during the pandemic are in need of revival to ensure economic recovery.

While the road sector was hard hit due to movement restrictions in almost all economies last year, roads played a crucial role in the consistent movement of food and other services.

“Formal and informal road-based public transport, including buses and modes such as jeepneys in the Philippines or three-wheelers in South Asia, were badly impacted by restrictions,” the experts said.

“This hurt the livelihood of vulnerable groups and underprivileged. Road transport is essential for poor families to reach basic necessities, education, and health-care services,” they said.

The industry was also negatively impacted in terms of financing, both from the public and private sector, as toll roads encountered issues of near zero traffic, suspension of tolls, and evaporating credit from banks.

As countries prepare for a rebound in economic activities, ADB said transport networks also need to recover.

For one, Chen and Peri emphasized that roads need to be kept in good shape with road maintenance being considered an essential service to continue, even during the lockdown in many countries.

“The natural confinement of most maintenance activities to a stretch of road allows a relatively easy introduction of COVID-19 prevention measures. If the finance can be assured, the construction industry can quickly resume the works when the external environment and policies allow,” they said.

Further, the boom in e-commerce, specifically on food delivery and online shopping, created a spike in last-mile delivery.

In the long term, the experts said the shift in retail purchases would demand good road connections and conditions and could contribute to reduced traffic and positive environmental benefits.

ADB also called for the fast tracking of digitalization of the road sector with efforts to broaden digital inclusion to realize the full benefits of more integrated and agile systems.

“The introduction of building information modeling can facilitate the progress of construction automation. Big data-based road asset management systems can help predict the requirements of road works in response to road deterioration, disasters, and pandemics,” the experts said.

Moreover, Chen and Peri argued that public-private partnerships will be needed now more than ever amid constraints in public resources.

However, they noted that the private sector is struggling as well, and the pandemic starkly brought out the need for proper risk sharing mechanisms to bring in private investors.

“This could include the government making larger investments in the partnership and underpinning user fees with minimum revenue guarantees so that the banking system is protected,” they said.