NOROC leads charge toward tolls
By ALEX EASTON, Chief reporter
TO THE nation's truckies it was a clarion call to battle, but to Ernie Bennett it was a shot from a starter's gun.
The signal was a proposal from Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Transport Minister John Anderson to use tolls on trucks and tourists to slash the timeline on upgrading the Pacific Highway from 2025 to 2016.
NSW Premier Bob Carr announced tentative backing for the plan and trucking groups gnashed their teeth.
Cr Bennett, president of the Northern Rivers Regional Organisation of Councils (NOROC) and mayor of Kyogle, saw a crack in the door and ran for it.
With national media focused on the highway, and the Federal and State governments appearing close to agreement, Cr Bennett and NOROC deputy president Phil Silver launched an ambitious plan to host a Pacific Highway summit at Ballina on May 6.
On the guest list would be 30 North Coast councils, Mr Anderson, NSW Transport Minister Michael Costa and the NRMA.
Nothing about the plan, a week in the making, is certain.
Invitations were sent last Friday, but so far neither Mr Anderson nor Mr Costa have said if they will attend.
A spokesman said Mr Anderson would use the occasion to sell the tollway plan, if he could go.
Whether they go or not, the summit is al- ready stirring a ready pot of debate and hope up and down the 800km highway.
Cr Bennett said the push, which was approved by NOROC early last month, was all about safety.
A staggering 430 people died on the Pacific Highway during the past decade. The NRMA estimates that had the entire highway been upgraded to dual carriageway, about 90 per cent of those deaths could have been avoided.
"What we are talking about here is around 380 people who could be still alive if we'd had a splitdual carriageway," Cr Bennett said.
Ballina councillor and Ballina Bypass Action Group chairman Alan Brown said the summit would let highway councils offer a united voice to the State and Federal governments.
If both ministers attended it offered a tantalising chance for them to start working more cooperatively on the issue.
Kempsey mayor Janet Hayes said the highway was an urgent problem that had been left on the backburner too long.
"We have these highs and lows. The National Party called a conference 18 months ago in Coffs Harbour and everyone got really gung-ho and we weren't going to rest until it was done," she said.
"But then things overtake you and it's not until you get a series of fatal accidents that people are properly galvanised about this.
"It doesn't just affect the families related to the people killed; it's all of the emergency services, the hospital people, the SES, the firies who have to scrape them off the road. The implications of it are quite horrendous."
However, not everyone wants the upgrade.
Byron Shire mayor Jan Barham said her council would prefer to see trucks banned from the highway rather than have it fully upgraded.
As for the tollway, the Transport Workers' Union has warned it would mean drivers doing extra runs to make up for losses incurred by the tolls, making the highway more dangerous.
Mr Anderson has said tolls would be more than covered by savings in fuel and travel time.
The councils don't care how the road is funded, so long as it is done quickly and tolls don't apply to locals.
"We want it done within 10 years and currently its much longer than that," Cr Bennett said. "At the end of the day, if they are telling us the only way is a toll road, then maybe that has too be looked at."