By ALEX EASTON
BRENT LEETE does not know which is worse ? the fear of knowing the government might run a highway through his home, or having to fight for it to be put through a friend's home instead.
"It's like saying 'I'm going to stab someone in two weeks' time, now tell me why it should be someone else I stab and not you'," Mr Leete yesterday told the Ballina hearings into the Legislative Council inquiry into the Pacific Highway upgrade.
Mr Leete, of Pimlico, was one of 19 Northern Rivers residents, from local community groups, councils and corporations, to voice their fears and hopes about the highway upgrade at yesterday's hearing at the Ballina RSL Club.
Common themes included:
n Recognition that the Pacific Highway was dangerous and needed to be made safer;
n That interstate freight trucks should be banned from the Pacific Highway ? at least until the upgrade is complete;
n That the RTA planning process was too secretive and that members of the Community Liaison Groups should be allowed to speak about the plans;
n That the RTA had already decided where it wanted to put the highway and was not lis- tening to residents' concerns
n That existing route options would badly damage the region's best farming land and, in doing so, hurt its economy;
n That entirely new routes needed to be considered;
n That planning for the highway was not linking in with broader planning for the region and would clash with residential release areas planned by Ballina and Byron shire councils.
However, State Roads Minister Joe Tripodi yesterday said residents were being listened to and that the RTA would consider all suggested routes put to it before the close of public submissions on Friday, November 18.
"The preferred route will be based on submissions from residents, community groups and local industry," he said.
"We want to make sure we find the route that best takes into account the social, environmental, cost and agricultural considerations."
However, there were limits on that consideration.
"I must emphasise that the NSW Government is concerned here with the Pacific Highway. While submissions about alternative roads are always welcome and considered by the RTA, we will not be putting the Pacific Highway upgrade on hold."
Inquiry chair and Nationals MLC Jenny Gardiner was unable to say when the inquiry committee would deliver its report, but said it would be able to bring community issues about the highway to the Government's attention.
That sentiment was echoed by ALP inquiry committee member Amanda Fazio, who said that, provided the inquiry did not get caught up in the State/Federal stoush over funding for the highway, the Government would pay attention to its outcome.
Northern Rivers Regional Development Board director and planning expert Ian Oelrichs said the highway could be made immediately safer by imposing a 70km/h speed-limit for trucks on all sections not yet upgraded, which would force most of them back on to the New England Highway.
Mr Oelrichs said plans to tunnel through St Helena and run along the ridge threatened some of the region's richest farmland and, as a result, its economic health.
"This is the most significant economic area outside of Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle. ... the growth pressures are huge. We need careful planning and we have to keep the great things about the region," he said.
Mr Oelrichs, through community group Community Alliance for Road Sustainability, is pushing for the upgraded highway to be redirected out behind Lismore, departing the existing highway around Woodburn and returning to it at Tyagarah.
Yesterday he conceded the idea had not yet been officially put to the RTA, but said the move would protect much of the agricultural land and lifestyle residents fear would be threatened by the highway, while increasing its viability as a freight transport route by giving easier access to the rail hub of Casino, the Summerland Way and, eventually, improved access to the planned freight hub of Beaudesert in Queensland.
Such a plan might be all that can help Mr Leete and his neighbours, with Mr Leete telling the hearing the process of understanding what was planned and fighting to protect properties was difficult and demoralising.
"It's bewildering and terrible," Mr Leete said. "They say 'write it down and make a submission', but it's obvious it affects me. It's a nasty process. You have this sense that this juggernaut is bearing down on you and you have these smilng people saying 'write it down'.
"The process of writing things down disempowers people. A lot of people don't like writing it down. It is a difficult thing to do for a lot of people.
"I know they compensate the people who are directly affected, but that's only if it runs over you. If you are right next to it you are not directly affected and it's tough luck.
"I can't believe this happens in this country. It's not fair or reasonable. There has to be some recognition that I have put this freeway next to your house ... I don't think it's the right thing to do in a good country."