IT’S only 120km long but it represents a yawning chasm between stagnation and vibrant economic development.
Explorer Edmund Kennedy lost his life trying to map a path further east in 1848 and fellow explorer William Hann missed the opportunity to become the discoverer of the Palmer River goldfield in 1872, but north Queensland is urging its nation builders to use the opportunities available to them in the 21st century to expand Australia’s prosperity by sealing the last 105km of the Hann Highway (Kennedy Development Road) between Hughenden and the Lynd Junction.
The call includes a 34km missing link between Torrens Creek and Aramac.
Some 100 people from as far afield as Cairns, Mount Isa and Barcaldine last Thursday attended a regional roads forum in Hughenden to push the case for federal and state governments to commit serious money to the road.
Community leaders, transport operators, tourism spokesmen and CSIRO scientists alike presented an overwhelming case for a maximum investment of $100m on the important linkage road that cuts off nearly 600km and over eight hours on the Cairns-Melbourne trip.
They included Member for Mount Isa, Rob Katter who said it was time for government in Australia to finish off the work begun by the US army during World War II and help the north-south road link reach its full potential.
“There are big problems in rural towns, people are on their knees,” he said.
“Governments can either have an inland wasteland or do something, and roads have always been the most cost-effective way to solve these rural crises.”
According to Mr Katter, the Bruce Highway, which is the current route between north Queensland’s products and southern markets, was cut over 160 times in a two year period to 2011.
“The banana industry alone in the far north is worth $360m a year. If those banana trucks can’t get their produce to Melbourne, Coles and Woolworths would be licking their lips at the importing prospects this gives them.”
While new Main Roads Minister Mark Bailey wasn’t at the forum organised by the Hughenden Chamber of Commerce, the Hann Highway Action Group and the Flinders Shire Council, he attended the NW Regional Organisation of Councils meeting later in the day and heard from several mayors about the road’s necessity.
Although a state road, forum attendees heard most of the funding received by Etheridge and Flinders shires for upgrades to the Hann Highway in recent years had come from the federal government.
Mr Bailey said that while he was there to listen to mayors, finding money would be a challenge given that under 100 vehicles a day used it at present.
“I’m basically here to soak up local knowledge,” he said.
Number-crunching was one of the main reasons put forth for the long stretches of dirt that remain on such a geographically significant road.
Professor Allan Dale, the chair of the Far North Queensland and Torres Strait Island RDA, said the case for the Hann had been accepted for a long time and he was surprised to see it was still such a hard battle to fight.
“I believe it has political support, which convinces me the problem is with people who build roads based on numbers. That’s where you have to win the argument.”
According to a study presented by CSIRO principal research scientist Dr Andrew Higgins, sealing the remaining 105km of the 260km highway would have saved around 5800 hours for an estimated 6500 road trains using the route between 2007 and 2011, and would have cut out 1000 driver fatigue stops.
CSIRO estimates an extra 1250 road trains would use the highway if it were fully sealed.
This was backed up by long-time transport operator John Lethbridge, who said time was money and that road train companies had found that if a significant part of their job required them to run on the Hann, the extra wear and tear ate up any profit margin.
He pointed out that unless the whole highway was sealed, the money spent to date amounted to nothing.
“I’ve had trucks bogged on it in the last 10 days,” he said.
“It’s not a reliable link in its present form.”
Other speakers highlighted the completed highway’s potential to unlock millions of dollars in tourism, as well as being the only Queensland route that escapes coastal flood systems.
It would allow road trains to travel between Cairns and Melbourne without unhooking trailers, drastically reducing maintenance, fuel and fatigue management costs.
Hann Highway Action Group spokesman Russell Lethbridge said many words were spoken about developing the north, which couldn’t happen without a road.
“All our fruit and vegetables have to end up in southern markets and this road is a shortcut not only to Sydney and Melbourne but also Adelaide and even Perth.
“The area generates about $4b a year in domestic product – it’s a significant amount to have a road to service.”
Resolutions generated from the forum were aimed at having the state government finance the completion of the sealing of the Hann Highway and Torrens Creek-Aramac Road within three years.
Mr Katter said there was an enormous appetite for people to see government engage in industry building activities rather than stadiums and traffic tunnels.
“It will cost $89m to build the Hann Highway, out of a $60b roads budget. It’s a more productive asset than a $5b traffic tunnel in Brisbane,” he said.