ACT News

Will the Barton Highway get more money in a marginal electorate?

A key question about the Barton Highway is whether its inclusion this week into a marginal electorate – the hugely-expanded seat of Eden-Monaro – will put enough pressure on the federal government to put serious money into the road.

At the moment, the highway – running from Canberra to Yass – is the poor cousin of the Federal Highway that links Canberra and Goulburn.

Yass mayor Rowena Abbey is frustrated by what she believes is a lack of action.
Yass mayor Rowena Abbey is frustrated by what she believes is a lack of action. Photo: Melissa Adams

The latter is a four-lane, high speed road, built to a higher standard to reflect the volume of traffic it carries.

But why should bucket loads of money be spent on the Barton, when the road is a reasonable standard and doesn't have the volume to justify the huge expense of four lanes?

Murrumbateman winemaker Ken Helm says 'the Barton Highway is one of the most dangerous highways in Australia'.
Murrumbateman winemaker Ken Helm says 'the Barton Highway is one of the most dangerous highways in Australia'.  Photo: Jeffrey Chan

The advocates disagree and point out they are not asking for $800 million to complete the duplication of all 41 kilometres in one go.

Yass mayor Rowena Abbey is frustrated with the lack of progress.

"They're not taking it seriously," she says. "We might have to wait and see until a truck and a school bus collide and then I think we'll probably get some action."

If you drive the route regularly, you will have noticed some improvements but you're left wondering why Murrumbateman has not been bypassed, although it was proposed in 2001.

A report by the NSW Roads and Maritime Services in November 2011 – Barton Highway duplication, preferred road corridor boundaries report – seems to have been forgotten.

"Due to its proximity to Canberra, the highway has growing volumes of commuter traffic between Canberra and residential areas of Murrumbateman and Yass," it says.

That report outlined the full, staged duplication of the highway.

"The Murrumbateman bypass follows the 'outer eastern' route declared by the Australian government in October 2001," it says.

After considering the accident rate and increase in traffic volumes, it concludes: "Commencement of detailed design and construction of the proposed duplication is not proposed in the near future."

Until last week, the highway was in the safe Liberal seat of Hume, held by Alby Schultz for many years and now by Angus Taylor.

Taylor has pushed for action on the highway and says last year's federal budget reconfirmed $8.62 million over four years for improving the highway.

"I was appalled to discover, when we got into government, there was actually no work done on how we duplicate the Barton. I've put together a group, we've got funding for that and that is proceeding. In parallel with that, we're fixing the worst part of the road," he said early last year. "Let's get a staged duplication plan, where we do piece by piece by piece. Inevitably it will start at the Canberra end."

Last May he was with Pru Goward, the member for the state seat of Goulburn, to announce $15 million would be spent on the highway – $3 million from the NSW government and the rest from the federal government.

They didn't say what specific projects would be funded – "short-term safety works towards staged duplication of the highway" – and they still haven't. Taylor's office confirmed this week the money was yet to be allocated.

Only a cynic would suggest that announcement was being held until closer to the federal election. A more likely reason for the delay is the inability of the NSW government to schedule the work.

Towards the end of last year, the two governments combined again, at a reported cost of $300,000, to publish a study – the Barton Highway draft improvement strategy.

"The community told us that driving on the road is stressful, particularly at peak times," the report says. "They would like to see improvements in road safety and reduced travel delays. Locations of particular concern are Murrumbateman village to Mundays Lane and Nanima Road to the ACT border.

"Three commonly reported general issues were poor driver behaviour, lack of overtaking opportunities and difficulty in getting on and off the highway at intersections."

The report records 137 crashes between 2009 and 2013, with seven fatalities and 70 crashes involving injury. The majority of crashes recorded were between Murrumbateman village and the ACT border. About 40 per cent of crashes occurred on weekends – more than on any weekday. The peak weekday crash period is 3pm-4pm on Friday.

"The casualty crash rate of 0.37 crashes per kilometre per year along the corridor is significantly higher than the average crash rate for other roads with similar general traffic and heavy vehicle volumes."

It proposes long-term action should include continuing with "staged upgrades along the corridor to complement, or form part of, the future road duplication of this highway''.

Under the heading, "beyond long-term actions", it says sections with the highest traffic volumes would be targeted for partial duplication, although emerging safety issues would also be a strong influence.

Modelling for expected increases in traffic over the next 20 years shows that adding three sets of overtaking lanes will maintain a satisfactory level of service of the highway.

The report is termed a 20-year blueprint for the highway and strongly suggests the staged duplication of the highway will not be needed or completed by then.

"Traffic forecasts and performance analysis indicates that, if additional overtaking lanes are progressively installed along the Barton Highway, traffic can be adequately accommodated within the existing lane capacity for many years."

With the release of the strategy last October, Taylor welcomed the recommendation that short-term investment priorities include new overtaking lanes across two sections of the highway – just north of Murrumbateman village and between Valencia Drive and the ACT border.

At the time, Goward pointed out traffic volumes through Murrumbateman village and south of Murrumbateman were between 11,000 and 12,000 vehicles a day.

"The strategy shows the average casualty crash rate over the whole Barton Highway between 2009 and 2013 was 0.37 crashes per kilometre, which is about double the average crash rate of 0.195 for similarly rated 4R rural roads," she said. "It's also considerably higher than the NSW average. Now we need to take up the priorities identified in the strategy to start making the road a lot safer.''

Goward is a strong advocate for improvement, having lived in Yass and worked in Canberra. She is a former ABC journalist and sex discrimination commissioner.

"As a former Canberra public servant living in Yass, I have driven the Barton Highway from Yass in all conditions and all times, my daughter also travelled to school by bus on this highway," she said last year.

"Without a doubt, it needs a staged rebuild and this [$15 million] commitment is part of the ongoing determination of the NSW Baird government to improve quality of life for people living in our regional centres. State Labor governments over many years failed to upgrade this highway. Overtaking lanes are urgently needed along the 'mad mile' north of Wallaroo, and south of Murrumbateman."

To push the case, she was on the phone to fellow Liberal Peter Hendy, who holds Eden-Monaro, as soon as the proposal was aired for his marginal electorate to expand and include the Barton Highway.

The ACT will be completely encircled by Eden-Monaro, which is surging north and west and gaining 25,000 voters.

The bellwether seat will increase in area by about one-third, to 41,000 square kilometres, the size of Switzerland. The addition of the Yass and Tumbarumba shires will make the electorate slightly safer for Hendy.

Winemaker Ken Helm of Murrumbateman believes the boundary change will put the political spotlight on the highway. The former mayor of Yass has been in the area since 1973 and watched commuter traffic build.

"The Barton Highway is one of the most dangerous highways in Australia and the traffic flow is increasing exponentially each year," he says.

"I think the move into Eden-Monaro will get the politicians focusing on this very dangerous road. We've seen in other areas, where there's a marginal electorate, lots of money is spent on highways, if you look at the Pacific Highway up around Port Macquarie and places like that

"We welcome the move into a marginal electorate and therefore we'll have the politicians focus on some of the real problems, number one of which is the Barton Highway."

He describes last year's improvement strategy as a joke.

"All it was talking about was doing more roadworks, fixing up a few intersections and therefore slowing down the traffic. The commuter traffic each morning is already frustrated by roadworks which are continuous along the road and that is adding to the danger.

"The answer is to duplicate the highway and it can be duplicated in sections. The obvious first section would be just outside Hall, on that straight stretch."

Abbey is also scathing about the report.

"All this report says is, we should basically keep an eye on it and see how things go and they'll review it from time to time."

The Yass mayor is particularly concerned about the highway being classed as a commuter road.

Trucks do use the road, going between Canberra, Melbourne, Wagga Wagga and Adelaide, prompting her to joke: "I don't know how a truck from Melbourne does a U-turn in the middle of the Hume Highway just before Goulburn to go to Canberra … that's the road [the Federal Highway] the trucks are all using, supposedly."

The number of trucks using the road will increase when the regional livestock exchange opens in Yass, with the transport of 1.5 million head of livestock by 2021, and with Canberra Airport's push for international freight services to speed produce from the region, including the Riverina, to Asian markets.

Abbey says residents understand the duplication of the Barton Highway won't happen overnight and has to be staged.

"What we asked for from the beginning was a plan with benchmarks and trigger points so, for instance, when the volume of traffic of cars and trucks reach X, that should require duplication.

"Then you've got something to go and have that conversation with the federal government and say, 'we've reached that point'.

"If we had a staged plan, it would tell you stage one needs to be here or there.

"With that [strategy] report, there is no talk of eventual duplication, they talk about improvements and 'let's wait and see'."

The mayor hopes the inclusion of the highway in a marginal seat will give impetus to the push for duplication.

"The federal government is prepared to have conversations with us about funding but the biggest problem we have is the state government [which does the roadworks] has to put it on a priorities list."

Hendy says when the new electoral boundaries were first proposed, he soon had calls from Goward and Abbey, lobbying their soon-to-be federal MP about the highway.

"It's the biggest economic development issue in the Yass valley and I will be discussing it with the relevant road transport and infrastructure ministers," he says.

Will the electorate's marginal status bring political firepower to the argument?

"With this sort of project, a decision would not be made on straight politics, it just wouldn't happen, it would go through a process with a rigorous cost benefit analysis."

Mike Kelly represented Eden-Monaro from 2007 to 2013 and is again the Labor candidate.

He believes the inclusion of the highway in a marginal seat may accelerate action on its improvement.

The increase in trucks on the road rather than the steady rise in commuter traffic to Canberra is a better case to use for upgrades, Kelly says.

"Labor's policy that we're taking to this election is to create an infrastructure bank and that would be at arm's length from government. I believe that we could mount a very good case for doing the Barton Highway as part of a broader regional strategic economic plan."

He pushed for the port of Eden to be open to more commercial activity, with cheaper rates than Sydney or Melbourne, and believes this would boost the region.

A potential customer for that port could be the Visy pulp and paper mill in Tumut, which he cites as the largest exporter of manufactured product in Australia.

"If we could demonstrate the viability of going through the port of Eden instead of Sydney or Melbourne, we could start building a whole range of commercial enterprises using that facility," he says,

"Therefore the argument for a properly duplicated Barton Highway becomes stronger, particularly if we connected it to the Majura Parkway because then we're starting to have that momentum of the inland infrastructure that really starts to make the port of Eden very attractive.

"I think the Labor policy of creating the infrastructure bank gives us the one hope of being able to get this done because it takes the politics out of it."

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