The lack of anticipation of possible obstacles and insufficient supervision are the primary issues being encountered in local road construction in Estonia, the National Audit Office found in an audit report released on Tuesday.
In seven of the 18 construction and repair works carried out on local roads in 2019-2021, the National Audit Office found that local governments had not been sufficiently careful in mitigating possible risks. The audit indicated that a careless attitude toward the prevention of problems could lead to road construction or repair becoming more expensive for local governments and the elimination of errors becoming more time-consuming, the audit office said in a press release.
The National Audit Office also analyzed works that had attracted public attention due to quality issues, such as the renovation of roads in Rakvere's Moonaküla District and of Vanemuise tänav in Tartu. The office looked into whether local governments had done their utmost to mitigate significant risks and prevent problems; it was revealed that this was not always the case, and that the level of risk management varied by local government.
"Problems in the quality of works are often caused by a lack of preliminary studies or a failure to carry out an expert assessment in the planning phase of construction works," Auditor General Janar Holm said. "The unexpected can be reduced with good preparatory work."
The audit showed that there were cases in which, due to insufficient preliminary research, it was discovered during the construction process that the designed solution was incompatible with neighboring properties, or construction volumes had to be increased as underground structures were discovered, the existence of which came as a surprise.
More careful supervision needed
In its audit report, the National Audit Office found that local road construction requires more careful owner supervision in many places. Unfortunately, critical issues in owner supervision contracts were either not written down or not detailed enough in some local governments — rules regarding the presence of a supervision engineer, the taking of inspection samples of materials and analysis management, for example, remained too general.
Another common shortcoming was poor construction documentation, including the inadequate recording of construction work meetings. As a result, it remained unclear why changes were made to the original solution during the construction process, or what had necessitated additional work.
The National Audit Office believes that local authorities should be aware of higher risk areas in road construction and require in their contracts that a supervising engineer is present at all higher risk works and sampling. Furthermore, owner supervision should be required to document the construction process with the obligations imposed on them by the contract in such a way that it is possible to verify what happened during the process. A local government should also intervene as soon as it is evident that owner supervision is not in compliance with relevant requirements, including in terms of documentation.
"Local governments sometimes rely too much on the expertise and goodwill of their contract partners as clients," Holm commented. "Thus, requirements for the designer, builder or owner supervision officer remain general in contracts, or it is not checked whether these requirements have been met."
The audit office found in its report that the risk taken this way may not justify itself. Certain unexpected events are inevitable in construction, but if local government interests are weakly protected when they occur, it may happen that construction will end up much more expensive for the local government than originally planned, or will be completed significantly later than scheduled. Roadwork projects went above budget or over their deadline in a total of 12 analyzed works.
The National Audit Office maintains that better prevention and management of risks does not necessarily require a significant additional cost from the local government, but rather the recognition of possible emerging obstacles and clear guidelines given to the designer, builder and owner supervision authority and the verification of their fulfilment. In several local governments, reasonable solutions were found in this respect and, in the opinion of the audit office, their dissemination should be encouraged. The Association of Estonian Cities and Municipalities, for example, could draw up standard terms and conditions for both technical specifications of works and contracts, make them available online and keep them updated.
The National Audit Office considers that the supervision of the Transport Administration of the construction of local roads should focus on larger and more expensive projects. The administration began conducting supervision in the second half of 2019 and has inspected around 10-15 sites per year since.
For the most part, objects have been randomly selected from the public procurement register. More than half of its inspections have resulted in the discovery of some deficiency, the most common being an insufficiently thick base layer. In the opinion of the National Audit Office, random selection is not the best way to find control objects. This is precisely in terms of the efficient use of supervisory resources, as large construction sites and areas with heavy traffic have not been inspected.
As of 2021, there were some 23,300 kilometers of local roads in Estonia, 77 percent of which were motorways, i.e. roads outside of major settlements. In 2019-2021, local governments spent approximately €170 million per year on road maintenance, of which an average of 57 percent was spent on road construction and repair.
The most significant risks in connection with road construction are incomplete source data in the preparation of works and preparation of construction projects, errors in construction projects, construction that does not comply with project and quality requirements as well as failures to detect construction defects within the warranty period. The National Audit Office's audit analyzed how local governments managed these risks.
Local governments audited included the cities of Tallinn, Tartu and Rakvere and Lääne-Harju, Kohtla-Järve, Märjamaa, Luunja, Rõuge, Tori and Viimsi municipalities.
Editor: Aili Vahtla