May 15, 2011

Time to end the horror toll from hell’s highway – Opinion – Sunday Telegraph

Just before dawn on 20 October 1989 not far from Grafton, the driver of a semi-trailer loaded with fruit juice went to sleep. With a massive concentration of ephedrine in his blood, he’d done everything he could to stay awake. His vehicle careered across the road into the path of a passenger bus, splitting it open and throwing passengers onto the road. Twenty-one people died in that crash and a further 22 were injured. It was the worst accident of its kind in Australian history.

That record didn’t last for long. Two months later at Clybucca near Kempsey two fully-loaded tourist coaches, each travelling at 100 kilometres per hour, collided head-on. Seats were ripped from their anchor bolts, people were trapped within the bus and 35 people died, with 41 injured. The coronial inquiries that followed both disasters produced a long list of improvements to vehicle and road safety. But at the top of the list was the call for the Pacific Highway to be duplicated.

Some things must be above politics. I believe the saving of lives on our roads is one of them. And it’s a sad reflection on governments of all persuasions that almost 22 years after those tragic deaths, much of the Pacific Highway remains single lane.

When I became Transport Minister in 2007, I made the duplication of the Pacific Highway a top priority and have set 2016 as completion date. With the money announced this week in the Federal Budget, our spend on this road so far stands at $4.1 billion.

As I told the Federal Parliament this week, there is something of a personal note to my campaign to make this road safe. My own name, Anthony, comes from my young cousin who I never got to meet. After WWII, his parents built a motel and service station on the Pacific Highway at Halfway Creek between Grafton and Coffs Harbour. My uncle was an ex-serviceman and he and my aunt built the Halfway Creek Motel with their own hands. Just before I was born, little Anthony rushed onto the Pacific Highway and was killed. In their grief, my aunt and uncle renamed their business Anthony’s Motel and I was called Anthony in his memory.

The work underway right now on the Pacific Highway makes it the largest road construction project in the nation. There are more than one thousand people working on the Kempsey bypass, the Bulahdelah bypass, the Ballina bypass, duplication of the road between Sapphire and Woolgoolga and at Glenugie. Work will begin shortly on two more big stretches – duplicating the road between Tintenbar and Ewingsdale and at Devils Pulpit.

During the 12 years of the Howard Government, the spending on this critical national highway was just $1.3 billion, less than one-third of what we have invested so far. Had the Howard Government funded this road appropriately, it would be fully duplicated by now.

I welcomed NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s words in the Northern Star last month that “The Pacific Highway should be above party politics.” The Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner is also committed to the 2016 duplication date telling ABC Mid North Coast “It’s an ambitious target. We think we can do it by streamlining the planning processes and also by putting forward additional money.” In Opposition, the now Roads Minister, Duncan Gay on ABC News urged the former NSW Government to “match that money and save the lives of people in NSW that have to use that highway.”

The fact is that funding a road the size of the Pacific Highway must always be a partnership. The Federal Government cannot do the heavy lifting on this alone. Duplication by 2016 is a mighty goal and I look forward to working with Barry O’Farrell and his team to achieve it together.

It is more than two decades since Australians shared the grief of the families who lost fathers, mothers, children and friends in those early morning bus smashes. The tragedy is that in the intervening years a further 574 Australians have died on the Pacific Highway and another 14,500 injured. This simply can’t go on.

Let’s work together and dig deep to make this road safe for the locals who use it each day and for the families of the future as they head north for a holiday in the sun.