The first major road in PNG was the Boluminski Highway, built on the east coast of New Ireland in 1910–1914. Prior to 1914, the German colonial
administration built three roads on the Gazelle Peninsula and one each on Bougainville and New Hanover islands. During World War II there was a tremendous upsurge in road building activity, with both Allied and Japanese forces involved. This activity was continued after the war by the Australian administration. Many early roads were built with unpaid, local, hand labour and were little more than graded foot tracks. After World War II, roads for motorised vehicles were constructed all over the country, first by unpaid local labour and then with earthmoving equipment.
Many of the first roads in PNG were made through areas with the highest populations. This was partly because of the labour requirements for road construction and partly because colonial administrators sought to reach the greatest numbers of people for the lowest cost. Beginning in the 1950s, local road networks began to be linked together by trunk roads, constructed using machinery. These roads were built to enable the export of agricultural products, particularly from the highlands. The economic benefits of new roads were meant to cover the costs of construction and ongoing maintenance, and estimates of economic returns were supposed to be prepared before the roads were built. However, many roads were built without cost-benefit analyses, on a perception of reasonable returns and an understanding that regional development would not take place without a road.
The outcome of this period of road construction in PNG is that the majority of the population now lives close to a road. In 2000, 53% of
the total population lived within 5 km of a national road and 70% lived within 15 km of a national road. A majority of people in PNG live within four hours walk of a national road. If district and rural roads are taken into consideration, a greater proportion of the population lives within 5 km of a road.
A number of provinces are particularly well served by roads (Figures 1). In Western Highlands and Simbu provinces, more than 70% of the populations live within 5 km of a national road; and in Southern Highlands, Central, Enga and East New Britain provinces more than 60% of the populations do so. Of the highlands provinces, only in Eastern Highlands do less than 50% of the population live within 5 km of a national road but, even here, only 30% are further than 15 km from a national road. In contrast, in Western and Milne Bay provinces, more than 70% of the populations live further than 15 km from a national road. More than 100 000 people live further than 15 km from a national road in each of Madang, Milne Bay, Eastern Highlands, Western and East Sepik provinces. In Morobe Province, more than 245 000 people (53% of the provincial population) live further than 15 km from a national road.
Residence near a road does not guarantee that the road will be trafficable all year round. Since about 1980, many roads and bridges have not been adequately maintained. As a result, many roads have deteriorated to the point where they are impassable when wet. When dry, they are so potholed and corrugated that damage is caused to vehicles travelling along them. Failure to maintain many bridges means that they have collapsed or must be crossed with care. Consequently, travel time and costs are greatly increased.
The PNG Road Asset Management System (RAMS) indicates that there were about 7300 km of national road in PNG in 2000. As a proportion of total road length, 22% of all national roads in 2000 were in a ‘poor’ condition; 36% in a ‘fair’ condition; and 42% were in ‘good’ condition. In seven provinces (Simbu, Enga, Manus, Bougainville, East New Britain, Southern Highlands and Western Highlands), more than 75% of national roads were in ‘poor’ or ‘fair’ condition. In Eastern Highlands, Sandaun, Madang, Central and Gulf provinces, less than half of the national roads were in ‘good’ condition. Only in Oro and New Ireland provinces were more than 80% of national roads in ‘good’ condition.
In 2000, two-thirds of national roads were gravelsurfaced and most of the remainder were sealed. Roughly equal proportions of both sealed and gravelsurfaced roads were in ‘poor’ or ‘fair’ condition. Along the full length of roads, ‘poor’ sections of road are interspersed with ‘fair’ and ‘good’ sections. Thus a ‘poor’ section of road near an urban centre affects traffic originating along its total length, while impassable sections of road prevent the movement of traffic beyond that point. The condition of many district and rural roads is not known but, anecdotally, most are in very poor condition.
The Medium Term Development Strategy emphasises spending on transport infrastructure, road rehabilitation and road maintenance, but adequate spending on roads and bridges will require a radical departure from how the national budget has been allocated in the past. In 2002, the PNG Department of Transport estimated that it would require K120 million to bring the roads of PNG back to the condition they were in 1980, but only K10 million was allocated for road maintenance in that budget year. It was recently estimated that only around 40% of what is required to maintain present main roads in a reasonable condition has been spent in an average year. The Highlands Highway is kept open by aid funds from AusAID, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and mining companies.
The lack of maintenance of roads and bridges has a negative effect on marketing agricultural produce and on economic growth. It also makes it more difficult for rural people to access education and health services, as well as for wholesalers of food and other goods to transport these to where consumers can purchase them.