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