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The Johannesburg Roads Agency has countered recent criticism, pointing out that it is showing "continuous improvement", with increased budgets and spending.

SOME 95 percent of its annual budget had been spent, the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA) assured the media at a briefing called in response to a rising tide of criticism in recent months.

Like a pair of well-worn jeans, Joburg roads are increasingly taking on the patched look of a favourite piece of clothing. But for many Joburgers, the city's roads have the scarred appearance of neglect.

This perception prompted the agency's managing director, Duduzile Maseko, and its legal representative, Thulane Makhubela, to speak out at the briefing, held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Rosebank on 30 June.

Top management took questions from the floor, among them the general manager for finance, Lesley Africa, and acting general manager for business implementation, Marcus Naidoo.

Spending the budget
Contrary to recent media claims that out of its R150-million capital budget for the year 2007-08, ending on 30 June, only a third was spent, Maseko said the budget was 95 percent spent but that the current quarterly report did not reflect this.

The cash flow column did not reflect projects that were still in progress or nearing completion and had been accounted for under the current financial year, ending on 30 June, she explained.

"The Municipal Finance Management Act does not allow us to pay the money before the project has been completed." She was adamant that the R150-million budget would be spent in its entirety.

Makhubela confirmed this, saying that year-on-year, the JRA had managed to spend most of its budget, never under-spending by more than 5 percent. This shortfall was usually the result of third party involvement or special approvals such as environmental impact assessments.

Bad roads
While acknowledging that a lack of funds made maintaining the city's almost 10 000 kilometres of roads difficult, the agency pointed out that the budget for road maintenance had increased to R46-million, from R30-million, in the 2008-09 financial year.

To maintain the road condition at the current level required a budget of approximately R156-million a year for resurfacing. "To improve the index we require three times that amount every year," said Makhubela.

Turning to staffing, Makhubela confirmed, "The JRA is indeed experiencing a high staff turnover." However, this was the result of unprecedented growth in the construction industry with Gautrain and 2010 related projects.

Thuli Nkosi, the general manager for corporate services, said the agency was confident of its skills retention and attaining processes and did not see staff turnover as a crisis at the moment.

A number of strategies were in place to deal with this, including exit interviews; counter employment offers; changes to certain contractual levels to make the agency more employee-friendly; accessing the retired engineering corps with the assistance of the South African Institute of Engineers; and succession planning.

"It is a process that will unfold as time goes on."

The agency had also gone into partnership with the Development Bank of Southern Africa to grow the civil engineering base for the industry. According to Maseko, a large number of engineers are unregistered, and therefore not allowed to undertake certain projects for which they are trained and qualified. The JRA was looking at ways to assist with this.

Maseko may have been singled out for particular criticism in recent press reports, but it was pointed out that she won the award for the most outstanding woman municipal official at the annual Women in Local Government Awards in September 2007.

Also in 2007, the Mail and Guardian, one of the country's leading weekly newspapers, acknowledged the role the roads agency played in building the city by giving it an Investing in the Future award for its part in tarring all roads in Soweto.

The JRA was also experiencing an increase in wayleaf applications, it was pointed out. This refers to the digging of trenches for the laying of pipes and cables along roads, for which JRA approval is required.

Neotel, the second national telecommunications operator, was just one of the companies laying fibre optic cabling all over Johannesburg. Joburg Water and City Power were also busy with network upgrades.

The agency hoped to introduce a new process in the near future by means of improved technology, meaning the trenches could be filled in and "black topped" in the shortest time possible.

Regarding concerns arising from power outages, alternative power supply solutions were in the pipeline.

The JRA was undertaking an extensive traffic signal programme entailing the conversion of Bus Rapid Transit and 2010 protocol routes to solar power. The Central Energy Fund had already made funding available for 400 energy efficient traffic signals, and the agency was in negotiations with South Korea and China to further assist with traffic signals.

"In spite of these challenges, the JRA is doing very well," Makhubela added; and similarly Maseko is not disheartened by her critics. "The JRA is showing continuous improvement," she concluded.

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