Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Statements by Senators

Kuranda Range Road

12:54 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Having access to reliable, safe roads is crucial to businesses, farms and families in regional parts of Queensland, but in many places it's more a case of wishful thinking. Very few places typify that more than the Kuranda Range road, west of Cairns in Far North Queensland.

I would like senators present to imagine desperately needing to get to hospital, work, school or catch a plane, and the only way to get there is 11 kilometres of winding, accident prone, heavily congested road. At the time of Cyclone Yasi the road was gridlocked and an emergency exit blocked. Now, imagine there's a head-on collision ahead and traffic is backed up in front and back. The clock is ticking. Your only alternatives are to wait and hope the debris is cleared quickly or do a U-turn and drive an hour to the nearest thoroughfare, hoping there isn't another accident there. What if you're in the back of an ambulance in cardiac arrest? What if you're about to give birth? What if you're heading to a potentially life-changing interview? This is the reality for thousands of people in North Queensland needing to get to Cairns on the Kuranda Range road. This 11-kilometre stretch is the main entry point to Cairns from the Atherton Tablelands, the gulf and Cape York. This is a huge area, comprising the bustling town of Mareeba and other towns such as Dimbulah and Chillagoe in the vast Savannah region. Further north we have the communities of Lakeland, Laura and Coen, and then the cattle stations and Aboriginal communities. Cairns is the major regional centre for all of them, and most people in these outlying areas need to get to Cairns several times a year.

Apart from the permanent residents, about 80,000 tourists visit Cape York, using Cairns and Mareeba as launch pads, and most of these people start their cape journeys on the Kuranda Range road. Just this month, the Cairns Post reported the road was closed 130 times in the 2018-19 financial year. If there was only one access point to Brisbane and it was closed this often it would have been fixed very quickly. But gulf and cape communities are being ignored. They already face complete isolation in the annual wet season when nothing and no-one can get in or out via land routes. But when the roads are open they then have to hope the Kuranda Range is clear.

Kuranda Range road has an average weekly cost of $871,992 due to fatalities, hospitalisations, injuries, and property damage. There are, on average, 2.5 fatalities per year; 1.2 hospitalisations per week—one injury every four days—and 1.3 vehicles damaged every week. Nearly 9,000 vehicles per day traverse the road, and this already exceeds its designated daily capacity by 1,686 vehicles. At last count, there are 1.3 unplanned closures per week. The economic loss of this is yet to be costed, but it will be significant. The nearest alternative route, Gillies highway, is 91 kilometres away, but nearly once a month this alternative route has an unplanned closure at the same time.

It's not just people who rely on the Kuranda Range road. Businesses stake their reputations and viability on it. Mareeba mayor Tom Gilmore, who's a longstanding servant to the north and who has long voted for this project, tells me it is costing millions and millions of dollars a year of economic activity in the cape, tablelands and gulf that depends on this road, and he has already seen negative impacts because of projects that cannot proceed. A proposed 200-room eco-resort development at the top of the Kuranda Range—which would mean jobs in Cairns and the surrounding community—is on hold because the Department of Transport and Main Roads has concerns about the increased traffic the resort would cause.

The bends on the road are so tight that B-double trucks have to unhitch one of their trailers, make one trip, then turnaround, pick up the other trailer, bring it up or down and then hitch it up again. Some may say that the Far North's population can't support major government expenditure on roads. But this is not about existing populations. It's about potential. There will always be more development, population growth, tourism and traffic, but the Far North is being hamstrung because the Queensland Labor government has been sitting on a report since 2004—that's 15 years—that investigated options for getting traffic up and down the range more safely and efficiently. Far North Queensland ROC's assessment of the impacts states:

Modern freight-efficient vehicles will seek alternative routes and possibly draw business away from Cairns. This could affect the economic performance of the Atherton Tablelands, Cape York Peninsula and Gulf of Carpentaria due to increasingly uncompetitive freight prices. Industries likely to be particularly affected are agriculture and mining.

It beggars belief that Cairns and the entire Far North, cape, gulf and tablelands are being held to ransom by their own Labor state government, that is more interested in getting people to work in Brisbane two minutes faster on the Cross River Rail but won't invest in a road that is so pivotal to a whole region and its people.

The Far North Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils has lobbied government for years to act on this road. This group's comprehensive studies and reports found increased freight costs and loss of economic development activities, an inability to accommodate urban and economic growth, increased travel time and cost, loss of tourism trade, reduced access for residents to services located in Cairns and poor reliability.

In 2004—again, 15 years ago—it was found:

              The Department of Main Roads in the terms of reference for the Integrated Transport study identified the existing Kuranda Range Road:

                And those growth rates have far exceeded the estimated rates that were recorded then. The study also found that the road:

                        …   …   …

                                Far North Queensland ROC estimates that $21 million is needed for a strategic assessment and business case, and I fully support them in seeking this funding.

                                Any work done on the Kuranda Range road should be done with a view to improving the capacity of infrastructure and transport systems to respond to new and emerging challenges and pressures and to lessen the need for high-cost new infrastructure; to improving the environmental performance of infrastructure and transport systems, including mitigating adverse environmental effects such as transport emissions; and to continuing a focus on transport safety. Of course, it should be added that any work must be done sooner rather than later.