NSW bureaucrats concerned about the heritage value of trees and possible community opposition to their removal recommended taking the go-slow option on improving safety on a killer stretch of the Kings Highway, despite acknowledging more people could die if it failed to act quickly.
Internal documents obtained under government information public access laws (formerly known as freedom-of-information laws) have revealed that public servants were worried about the ‘‘political ramifications’’ of removing trees from the clear zone near Braidwood where five people lost their lives in crashes between 2004-10.
A 2011 report recommended ‘‘doing lots’’ of public consultation rather than acting to fix the problem immediately, even though the project was urgent and risked being axed if there was a public backlash.
The report, completed in July, identified rows of poplar trees, sections of which were affected by Braidwood State Heritage Listing, as significant hazards to drivers.
When the  Sunday Canberra Times brought the report to the attention of NSW Roads Minister Duncan Gay, he said through a spokeswoman he did not expect those concerns included in department reports.
‘‘The minister expects to receive frank and fearless advice from the department on all matters especially a matter as sensitive as the issue of road safety,’’ she said.
‘‘No consideration should be given to politics by the department.’’
Five more people died on the Kings Highway in March this year, prompting the minister to request a highway safety review.
However, last year public servants were so worried about the community’s reaction to safety measures, the report stated ‘‘the project team has determined the only way forward for a project of this nature is the ‘do lots’ (of community consultation) approach’’.
Founder of the Poplar Front community organisation Hans Hofmann said he was staggered by the recommendation, as there had already been intense rounds of public consultation in 2004-05 as well as further public meetings in 2011.
‘‘I think the overriding opinion is that the trees are clearly a danger – people are dying in those trees,’’ he said.
‘‘The preferred option is to replant them 10 metres back from the road, but I am so sick of the talkfests and the hoo haa created around them.’’
The report, which was approved by the manager of road safety and traffic management for southern operations for NSW Transport Roads and Maritime Services, outlined three options. Those were to either do ‘‘no’’ public consultations; ‘‘do little’’ or ‘‘do lots’’.
No consultation would have meant the department could make an internal decision to remove trees, reduce the speed limit, install barriers and put in a rumble strip – which bureaucrats warned against.
‘‘It is believed the Braidwood community have great affiliation with the tree-lined avenues that approach the town,’’ the report said.
‘‘Risks arise with community engagement. If there is no community engagement the community will lose trust, there may be political ramification and loss of good will.’’
At the other end of the scale were other risks, the report stated.
‘‘However, strong community engagement takes time and in that time there could be another crash involving casualties; the project could be abandoned due to public reaction; a political solution might result when an urgent road safety outcome is required; the time taken in consultation could impact other projects.’’