Outback Way: Why is road building in NT so expensive?


Why does road sealing cost twice as much in the Territory as it does in shires across the borders on either side?
“That’s the question that needs to be asked,” says Patrick Hill (at left), the president of the Laverton Shire and chairman of the Outback Highway Development Council Inc (OHDC) which held its annual general meeting in Alice Springs this week.
Both the Ngaanyatjarraku Shire in WA and the Boulia Shire in Queensland can build sealed roads for around $250,000 a kilometer while the cost in the Territory is $500,000 – a major concern for the group promoting the east-west highway running through Alice Springs.
Both shires have expressed interest in doing roadworks in the Territory, and Boulia Mayor Eric “Rick” Britton says negotiations with the NT government are beginning.
NT Infrastructure Minister Peter Styles says the higher costs in the NT “could be reflective of a number of reasons, availability of suitable pavement materials, haulage distance of pavement materials and water, differences in environment, availability of contractors for work in remote locations and differences in road upgrading standards”.
We drew Councillor Hill’s attention to the Austroads Guidelines, which the NT Government uses for its road building. He says all Australian jurisdictions pretty well use the same Australian standards.
Mr Styles says: “As the Northern Territory contracts out its road construction to private industry, the full cost of construction is captured in the Northern Territory construction rates.
“The full value of project overhead costs may not be fully captured in the Shire construction rates.”
Mr Britton says the Boulia Shire uses its own plant as well as local contractors who “live in the town, have invested in the town, are part of our rate base, sponsor events”.
He says the Boulia Shire’s cost of maintaining dirt roads is $1700 per kilometer.
The shires in WA and Queensland have convenient ways of obtaining gravel – an issue that has been delaying the upgrading of the Mereenie loop road from Alice Springs to King’s Canyon year after year, with the Central Land Council withholding permits for quarrying.
Both WA and Queensland have corridors of 10 kilometers either side of their roads from which ballast can be obtained.
Mr Britton says the Boulia Shire has Indigenous Land Use Agreements in place for gravel mining and the Aboriginal community is keen to have good roads. “They benefit all people,” he says.
OHDC Executive Officer Helen Lewis says the Ngaanyatjarra Land Council is  “very supportive”. It operates in the area of WA across the border from Docker River.
The Abbott government is committed to a $33m expenditure over three years for the highway, and discussions are now under way for the two states and the NT to provide matching funding, says Ms Lewis.
She says WA is already spending more than matching funds, with an outlay of $4.5m in 2012/13 and $25m since 1998/99.
Sealing the worst spots is the present policy. Ms Lewis says to fully seal the 1700 kilometers between Boulia and Laverton will cost $512m, and the OHDC “will analyse social and economic advantages the $11m per year delivers, which will build their case to take to Canberra in 2017/18 to seal the road”.
The group dates back to a motion of support by Cr Hill carried at the national local government conferences in Canberra in 1995 and 1996. The OHDC was founded in 1997 and Cr Hill has been its chairman ever since.
UPDATE Nov 19 at 4:30pm
The NT Government has just released figures showing that road building in the NT is up to three times as expensive when compared with adjoining states.
The statement says: “At January 2012, published cost per kilometre for sealing roads in the Territory was estimated at between $500,000 and $700,000 per kilometre. This range is now estimated at approximately $600,000 to $800,000 per kilometre.”


  1. The Outback Highway where it travels thru Qld, the NT and WA will go thru similar country, with the same environment, over the same dry distances and adhere to the same national standards. Could the big difference between the three participants be that WA and Qld are functioning States while the NT is a dysfunctional Territory?
    The only people objecting to this road would have to have a vested interest in keeping those living on it isolated. A bit like the old sexist notion of keeping women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
    There is no downside to good roads. They not only promote, but allow, trade, exchange and growth. The one thing we can be certain of is that it will cost more next year than it will cost this year. Get it built, and the sooner the better.

  2. Great to see movement on the great central highway and possible repairs to the worst of the 1100kms to the west which happens to be the NT section to the WA border. If you travel this road you would have some very disapproving words to say to the persons responsible to keep this road at least safe to road users.
    If only more people with a vision of the future advantage of having this road upgraded the better off the NT will be.
    We can now see all the critics of having the Mereenie loop road sealed are nowhere to be seen.
    Now a few years have passed and those with no foresight and a vested interest in keeping it gravel so they could give their tourists the four wheel drive experience have moved back to a coastal retreat and leaving the locals again with no decent road.
    So in defence of the criticism of CLC, and I don’t do this lightly, but they have helped in past years as you only have to see the section of sealed road in the middle of the loop road to glen Helen which was to be the start of the sealing of the loop road but along came a change of government new advisers and bad advice.
    So we can only hope the good work being done by the outback development council is not hindered also by those that have a vested interest no foresight and also won’t be around to have to put up with dangerous unreliable roads in the future.

  3. It is good to hear that the Abbott government will make $33 million available to improve the worst sections of the Outback Highway over three years.
    It is also reassuring that the Chair of the Outback Highway Development Council is demanding to know why NT road sealing costs are unaffordably high compared to the rates in remote areas of WA and Qld.
    Only seven years ago the sealing rates were approximately the same, but now the NT rate is claimed to be twice that of the cross border areas.
    However, in the larger picture, governments should respond to the lobbying for the huge funds involved in road sealing by undertaking integrated, comprehensive planning, and allocating whatever funds they are prepared to make available to meet the priority needs in the NT remote regions, and not simply to the squeakiest wheels of the moment, or to the strategies that are most rewarding for certain interest groups.
    I agree with ‘Spot’ (Posted November 18, 2013 at 7:44 pm), that the sealing of the Areyonga-Hermannsburg section of the Mereenie Loop should definitely be back on the table during this planning, as should the section of arterial road between the Tanami Highway and Papunya, and the Santa Teresa Road.
    Each of these probably have greater numbers of users than do sections of the more publicised but less urgent ‘Outback Highway’, and all are currently prone to prolonged closure during wet weather due to lack of all-weather creek crossings. The full integration of their populations into the central Australian economy and job markets depends on the improvement of these arterial roads.

  4. The NT has been suffering from overpricing in construction & development for some time now. A fair bit of this can be attributed to massive government grants monies with no supervision on sane pricing rises.


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