End of long road to hell as Pacific Highway nears completion
It has taken more than two decades, cost $15 billion and been described as a "remarkable feat in engineering".
But the long-awaited upgrade of the Pacific Highway, the scene of Australia's two deadliest road accidents, will be completed by Christmas with the last truckloads of paving materials having just been delivered.
The Highway was today the scene of yet another major incident today when a a B Double refrigerated truck caught fire near Kempsey sparking a huge blaze and long traffic delays.
With the opening of the final section between Woolgoolga and Ballina, the country's largest road project - stretching 657km from Hexham to the Queensland border - will be dual carriageway all the way, saving motorists time but, more importantly, lives.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the "greatest dividend from this investment is the improvement in safety for road users".
"The death toll on the highway has reduced by more than 50 per cent since work began to make the entire length four lane dual carriageway," Mr McCormack said.
"It has been a remarkable feat of engineering.
"We want to get people where they need to be sooner and safer and upon completion, the Pacific Highway upgrades will mean that people can get from Hexham to the Queensland border in two and a half hours less time than they would have previously, before the upgrade started."
According to Transport for NSW, fatalities have more than halved over the past 20 years from an average of more than 50 to less than 25. Last year, 17 people died in 15 fatal crashes and in 2018, nine people were killed in eight accidents.
The Pacific Highway was officially named in 1931 when a direct section between Sydney and Newcastle was opened but was plagued by only piecemeal improvements for decades.
In 1989, the highway was the scene of the nation's two worst road crashes, resulting in a public outcry over the road's poor quality.
Twenty-one people were killed at Cowper near Grafton on October 20 when a bus collided with a semi-trailer and two months later the unthinkable happened. On December 22, 35 passengers died after two full tourist coaches collided at Clybucca, near Kempsey.
Inquests into the crashes, led by state coroner Kevin Waller, recommended the duplication of the highway from the Queensland border to Newcastle.
In January 1996, the NSW and Federal governments announced a joint commitment to a 10-year program to upgrade. The 2006 deadline passed along with another promise to finish the four lane divided road by 2016.
But finally the end is in sight.
NSW north coast GP Dr Raymond Jones, one of the first medics on the scene at the Grafton bus crash, said the upgrades "were long overdue", describing the old road as a "goat track".
"The highway was a shocking state of affairs - it should have been fixed 30 years earlier," Dr Jones, a campaigner for the upgrades since 1989, said.
"The reason people died on the highway was head-on collisions - that's what killed everybody - and now you can't have a head-on collision."
The $4.95 billion final Woolgoolga to Ballina section will bypass five towns, be 13km shorter than the old road and about 25 minutes faster.
NSW Acting Deputy Premier and Regional Roads Minister Paul Toole said the duplication of the highway had been made even more challenging by COVID-19 and bushfires.
"It is the culmination of over two decades of work on the Pacific Highway, but the final section, the Woolgoolga to Ballina upgrade, has been a mammoth task in itself," Mr Toole said.
"Over the past five years, our workforce has moved more than 15 million cubic metres of earth, pumped 785,000 cubic metres of concrete and 240,000 tonnes of asphalt for paving on this final section. During peak construction, we've seen a record of 25,000 tonnes of material, or 800 truckloads, delivered in a single day."
Mr Toole said the last section had been an important economic and jobs driver for northern NSW, with 3000 people directly employed at its peak along with many other indirect jobs. At completion there will be 170 bridges over rivers, creeks, and flood plains, including major bridges crossing the Clarence and Richmond rivers
Originally published as End of long road to hell as Pacific Highway nears completion