The Mt Victoria to Lithgow 'white elephant way'

September 20, 2009

The Mt Victoria to Lithgow upgrade of the Great Western Highway was conceived for one election campaign and its life may be extinguished with another. It has caused everything from bemusement to misery and has distracted attention from needier causes.

In the saga's latest instalment, roads minister Michael Daley has now given the green light to the "Orange corridor" route for the proposed upgrade.

It all began on October 3, 2007, just before the federal election. A joint press release from then Labor shadow transport minister Martin Ferguson and prospective member for Macquarie Bob Debus promised a highway bypass of Mt Victoria and River Lett Hill.

In hindsight, lightweight election hyperbole abounded in the release. For example, it said the upgrade would more than halve travel time between Mt Victoria and Lithgow. Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) reports now show the proposed upgrade will only reduce travel time by a couple of minutes.

Or another gem: the release's authors projected traffic "growth rate of about 1.5% a year". RTA reports show traffic volumes have actually declined in the last 10 years.

Since the federal election, the government has stubbornly stuck to the promise, while opposition has centred on the threat of the Blue Mountains being opened to gigantic 26-metre b-double trucks, highway encroachment on the environmentally sensitive Newnes Plateau and the impact of highway widening on the Blackheath village.

Daley's announcement had a fast-tracking aroma about it, missing the usual kilograms of accompanying RTA consultant reports.

Unnoticed thus far, but nevertheless constructive, have been efforts by the Association of Concerned Mid Mountains Residents (ACMMR). Given highway congestion is not on the horizon, they concentrated on a least-cost upgrade that met the highway safety standards being generally targeted by the NSW government.

The idea of a more modest, safety-only upgrade was not an invention of a desperate community group but was introduced by RTA consultant, Cardno.

The consultant provided scant detail on what comprised its safety upgrade. Although Daley supplied ACMMR with additional snippets, the community group is contemplating seeking further advice in an independent research group.

This goes to the heart of what is missing in a rational appraisal of the Orange corridor option. Is a $500-1000 million upgrade the only way to achieve targeted safety or could most of those scarce funds be channelled to more important causes?

There are many ways such funding could be better spent. One dramatic example is the NSW central west, which is an alleged beneficiary of the highway upgrade.

The region suffers an acute doctor shortage, meaning seeing a GP isn't a city matter of walking to a medical centre. I personally know of two dearly loved people who would be alive today if it were not for delays caused by that doctor shortage — something which could be overcome with more funding.

The time for lightweight election hyperbole should be well and truly over. Now is the time for rational decision making that helps people and protects the environment. Not for the building of a white elephant way.

One otherwise unsavory way out of this highway madness would be if Barry O'Farrell's Liberals win the NSW election in 2011. But his alternative plan to turn the Bells Line of Road into an expressway is so economically and environmentally dubious that one doubts it would ever even become a twinkle in an RTA road engineer's eye.

[Ilan Salbe is a resident of Lawson in the Blue Mountains.]

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