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Why staged duplication is the only way forward for the Barton Highway

Electoral boundaries have changed but the issue remains the same.

It was 1991, more than a quarter of a century ago, when I first sat down with representatives from NSW Farmers to discuss the route for the Murrumbateman bypass, a critical part of the proposed Barton Highway upgrade.

As then-member for Burrinjuck, there were few issues that invoked such passion and fury from constituents.

With those constituents by my side, I lobbied long and hard to secure funding to make driving safer on the crash-prone carriageway.

Despite the Barton being a federal responsibility, representations to the federal government seemed to get the same regular reply – "this is a state matter".

For the years to 2011, when NSW Labor was evicted, successive state roads ministers took the opposite view.

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Even back then, the Barton saw a steady stream of commuters to Canberra from Yass and surrounds, blended with heavy vehicles, tourist traffic and school buses.

And tragically, too many had already lost their lives and many more suffered serious crashes on the road.

The figures tell a startling story.

Between 1997 and 2011, there were 410 recorded crashes on the 33km stretch of NSW highway.

Nineteen people were killed and 258 people injured.

The profound grief a single road death causes in a close-knit community cannot be overstated.

When that grief gives way to anger, elected representatives are duty-bound to respond.

We had our share of wins – and disappointments.

An announcement of $268 million to upgrade the Barton by the Liberal federal roads minister never eventuated, as when Labor came into office, they failed to honour the commitment.

Millions have been poured into upgrading the highway over the years (including a co-funded $15 million commitment in 2015 and a $50 million commitment from the federal government in 2016) and a host of long-term studies have been completed.

Some of it has improved safety, such as the realignment of the hills and curves at Gounyan.

But much of it has just tinkered at the edges.

With the increased traffic on the Barton – it now sees up to 12,500 traffic movements a day and freight movements are expected to almost double by 2031 – the spectre of a full duplication has become a glaring reality.

It won't come cheap: the price tag hovers around the billion dollar mark.

And it grows daily.

The NSW government's commitment of $50 million, confirmed in this year's Budget, was a timely reminder of the need for meaningful action.

The Barton is a federally-funded highway and, under the standard 80-20 federal-state funding formula, it is now incumbent on the Australian government to follow suit and inject its share.

That would take this round of funding up to $250 million, enough to duplicate a couple of the nastier blackspots between Murrumbateman and Hall.

This is not just an issue for Yass and Canberra residents.

Live Traffic's Facebook page and the local news shows weekends are the most perilous time for accidents on the Barton, with about 40 per cent occurring on a Saturday or Sunday, many involving tourists.

And thousands of residents from my electorate of Cootamundra, including towns such as Harden and Young, use the Barton regularly to commute, for medical appointments or for other purposes.

Being in government can be an exercise in frustration.

The wheels of bureaucracy often turn slowly and funds are fiercely competed for.

Duplicating the Barton in one hit may well be a bridge too far.

But surely the time has come for the federal government to commit to forging towards a staged duplication.

Only this type of swift and meaningful action will help stem the tragic tide of lost lives and broken families.

Katrina Hodgkinson is the Member for Cootamundra in the NSW Parliament.