A red-faced Transport Minister Stephan Knoll fronted media this morning conceding it was an “unacceptable situation”, and declaring he had had “some pretty robust conversations” with his departmental officials and the contractor working on the motorway.
The Darlington upgrade, part of continuing works along the North-South corridor, was begun in 2016 by the former Labor Government, with Gateway South – a consortium comprised of Laing O’Rourke and Fulton Hogan, along with various smaller companies – contracted to deliver the $620 million road link.
Knoll vowed that “taxpayers will be protected to the greatest extent possible” in the event major remediation works are required.
“We can’t have a situation where taxpayers are footing the bill for shoddy work,” he said.
“We’ve got a contract that’s in place – we’re putting $620 million of taxpayers’ money to build a road that’s up to scratch, and we’ll be using all legal processes to make sure taxpayers are protected.
“We have very strong mechanisms in place to make sure we hold the people building this road to account, and we will use those to the greatest extent possible.”
But he conspicuously declined to pin the blame on the previous administration, saying only that “the procurement strategy putting the contract in place was done before we came to government”.
“But quite clearly this project has been progressing over the past 15 months [so] it really is too early to understand where the heart of who’s at fault lies,” he admitted.
“There’s an auditing process that goes on at each step of the way…
“What we’ve done to date is make sure everybody from the department through to the contractor through to external experts understand that the situation we’ve got at Darlington is unacceptable.”
He said the Marshall Government would take “all steps [necessary] to make sure we get the road South Australians have spent hundreds of millions of dollars paying for”.
The latest crumbling façade follows a similar collapse earlier this week, after which the Transport department insisted “every piece of evidence is that it’s localised to that one section of wall”.
However, that theory was demolished overnight when a second piece of spray-on concrete, known as “shotcrete”, crumbled nearby after further rain.
“This problem is evolving… we’ve seen further falling of shotcrete overnight,” Knoll said.
“Essentially what’s happened is water has got in behind that shotcrete, moved soil and that’s caused the concrete to fall off the side of the embankment wall.”
He said he had “a whole series of experts coming in from all over the country to get to the bottom of this problem”.
While he insisted that “the area that had seen the original concrete fall has been dealt with”, he appeared loathe to comment specifically on the second section, including to blame rainfall for the problems.
Instead, he blamed “a water source that’s coming in behind the concrete that’s not previously been identified”.
However, he noted a lack of rainfall thus far this year “is why this problem hasn’t been identified any earlier”.
“What we’ve got is an issue with a 220 metre section of the lowered motorway on the southern side, between Sturt Road and Flinders Drive,” he said.
“That’s the area we need to look at to get fixed – we’re talking about a localised 220 metre area.
“This is nothing to do with the concrete that was put on the side of the embankment – the issue is water is getting in behind that concrete wall, stirring the soil and causing soil to move.”
Asked whether the entire area might have to be removed, he conceded: “That’s possible.”
The minister said “we haven’t got a firm timeline on” further traffic restrictions along the motorway, saying “there’s no definite timeframe” on any repairs.
“We’ve got to lock down the source of the problem,” he said.
However, he insisted “work will continue on other sections of the Darlington motorway” in the meantime and “we don’t expect there to be a delay to the final opening at the end of this year”.
He denied being in thrall to his department, saying: “I reject that completely.”
“As minister I take responsibility for what goes on – that’s the way the Westminster system of accountability operates,” he said.
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