Harumphing vs experts: who’d we rather listen to?

“Expressway springs more leaks” said Stuff in this week’s Kapi Mana and its syndicates. It’s the latest in quite a lot of media about the Expressway’s road surface problems.

Motorways and expressways are expensive beasts but when one’s built we expect it to be awesome. Especially when – like the Kapiti Expressway – a fancy road has had bitter battles over its rationale and impacts, years of disruption and a cute opening, we seem to particularly expect awesomeness rather than ongoing ”costly” repairs, so our disgruntlement is that much gruntier.

At Talk Wellington we’re never in favour of the put-down to community unrest, beloved of technocrats, which essentially says “this is too complex for little laypeople’s brains; trust us we’ve got this” (with the optional extra of “nothing to see here folks, move along now”).

But road surfacing is complicated.  

Road surfaces – called (confusingly) “pavement” – is the subject of a specialist trade, an art-and-science combination of geotechnology, chemistry, geology, hydrology and traffic modelling.  Turning this stuff into sound, publicly-procured contracts (i.e. taxpayers and ratepayers’ money pays the contractors) is another complex area.

For a quick demonstration, see the last major reporting of leaking expressway pavement by frequent NZTA-kicker Greater Auckland. Author Matt Lowrie essentially argued that  NZTA gobble money and they’re incompetent. But a few pavement and contracting insights showed up in the comments thread and were quite enlightening for us laypeople.

In road making, like many engineering trades, there’s a tradeoff between painstakingly exhaustive and increasingly expensive geotechnical investigations, and getting the job done within the client’s budget and time. At some point you’re making a judgement call about what is likely to happen given known ground conditions, road loadings, where the road sits vis-à-vis local groundlevel, under-road hydrology, and local weather, and you make your calls and build it to those specs.

Sometimes that system fails, and repairs are needed – and they’re usually costly. Should we assume that these roading contracts are written so these eventualities are covered (and contractors’ insurance etc. involved) while maintaining a climate where contractors are actually willing to take on projects? The roading alliance model is trying to do this and on the whole I think we can assume no-one’s doing anything dastardly (pending evidence to the contrary).

Balanced reporting, or just two-siding?

But actual evidence from anyone independent was absent from Stuff’s article this week. “Balance” was achieved by finding predictably grumpy folks (this writer recognises some of the quoted folk from local social media groups) and quoting their grumping. (Perhaps we should be grateful there was any “other opinion” provided at all – Radio NZ just quoted an Alliance spokesman.) Stuff’s Fallon, however, gets the balance from the community: “Many Kapiti locals were annoyed about the roadworks and thought the repairs had failed” she writes, and the whole second half of the article is quotes from local folk.


The Expressway in happier days (soon after opening)

The Expressway in happier days (soon after opening)

With the greatest respect to “annoyed locals” Brent, Eugene and Allan, we can assume that if they knew anything about this field they’d have definitely said so and Fallon would have repeated that. So for “balance” we have more reckons from men without expertise… what does this add? Is it really news? “People with new motorway in their neighbourhood are cross about roadworks associated go-slow zones!” “People on social media are grumpy about government spending!”

Quick! Stop the presses – this is a scoop!

Simplifying, or just dumbing down an argument?

We’re all entitled to our opinions but it’s all too easy to encourage ignorant public grumping about taxes and rates and spending and “roadworks that slow us down”, without looking into whether this “failure” is actually reasonably avoidable or not by asking any actual experts. Perhaps Fallon tried, and none would comment? She would presumably have said so – that in itself would be interesting.

Geeky commenters are one great advantage of technical blogs like Greater Auckland: people there tend (usually) to apply good reasoning and compete to out-expert each other in comments. The Greater Auckland commenters debating the Kapiti expressway woes didn’t even arrive at a consensus, but their conversational currency was demonstrable facts rather than “reckons”.

Social media, in contrast, is about equal proportions dog/cat posts and local business adverts, and people having reckons – which Stuff quotes at length as the “balance” to NZTA’s statements.

Maybe Fallon’s point is, in fact, the same as this author’s: people are prone to uninformed grumping about rates and costs and roadworks, even (especially) when there’s a complex situation likely featuring reasonable and unreasonable cock-ups but no conspiracy.

But, probably, that’s not Stuff/Fairfax’s point.

After all, this is 2018 New Zealand journalism and poor overworked journos know there’s much more clicking to be had by rarking up “The Community” against “The Government/The Council” and “Greedy Contractors With Their Snouts On The Government Teat” (full credit for these quotes where it’s due: locals on Kapiti Coast Facebook groups).

Hopefully someone with some insight into pavement works and infrastructure contracting will wade into the Stuff comments – famous for their insightful, nuanced, fact-based debate.

What do you think about reporting community members versus experts?

Should it be an either/or?


Image credits:

  • Kapiti expressway with trucks – NZTA
  • Expressway being built – screen grab from NZTA Youtube video
  • Banner image: Expressway Kāpiti- Kevin Stent, Fairfax NZ

4 comments on “Harumphing vs experts: who’d we rather listen to?”

  • Tim Jones says:

    Experts are needed – ignore them, and we end up with Brexit and the like.

    But if Wellingtonians had just shut up and listened to NZTA’s experts in 2011-2015, we’d now be looking at a 380-metre-long, 10-metre high, congestion-inducing motorway flyover at the Basin Reserve, and the chance to create a more sustainable Wellington transport system would not have arisen.

    Expertise in the cause of making things worse deserves to be challenged.

  • Allan Green says:

    You mentioned me in your above article as being an ‘annoyed local’! Not sure where that came from but I was never an ‘annoyed local’ I am a concerned tax paying citizen that is concerned that we have employed so called ‘experts’ to design and build a road of national significance that, by all intents, appears to be failing. Why else would we have a continuous row of road cones and a 30kph speed limit for long stretches of the expressway while it is being repaired. It also does not take an expert to see that the patches (designed again by so called experts) are also failing. I do not purport to be a road designer/builder/expert but it does not take an expert to visibly see the failings of this multi million dollar expressway.
    My name has also been spelled wrong – it is Allan – not Allen. If the author of the articles quoting me had done their homework they would have spelled my name correctly. This shows how so called experts, from all fields of professionalism, get things wrong.

    • Isabella says:

      Hi Allan
      Isabella here, one of Talk Wellington’s editors.

      The writer is commenting on the Stuff article by Virginia Fallon.
      “Many Kāpiti locals were annoyed by the roadworks and thought the repairs had failed.
      Waikanae man Allen Green said there had been major roadworks on the expressway for the past six months, he said.
      “I find this a ludicrous situation for a brand new road with no end in sight to the never-ending row after row of road cones and reduced speed limits,” Green said.
      “Has anybody been held accountable for this debacle, or do we just keep paying, through our taxes, for a never-ending repair bill?””
      [end quote]
      It’s important to spell people’s names correctly and we’re sorry one of our contributors repeated the error. It’s corrected now for the article on our site – perhaps you might want to contact Stuff to request the same?

  • Isla says:

    The local experts (residents of decades) provided evidence at the board of inquiry that clearly stated that water was going to be the biggest issue for the road builder. The expert road builder didn’t take on board sufficiently the local experts knowledge.

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