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Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Page: 6166

Senator STEPHENS (11:22 PM) —This evening I would like to raise an issue that is of critical importance to the people of south-east New South Wales, particularly those living along the South Coast. The issue is the condition of the Princes Highway and, in particular, the Pambula bridge. This bridge is the subject of the petition that I tabled in the Senate today on behalf of local Labor Party activist Wilma Chinnock and 1,658 New South Wales constituents. This petition requested that the Princes Highway at Pambula bridge be declared a road of national importance. This would enable the federal and state governments to jointly fund a solution to a problem that has implications not only for Bega Valley residents but also for the region as a whole.

The Pambula River bridge is the main point of access from the south of Bega into the Bega Valley. Many residents live south of Bega, while most services including the hospital, schools, shops and banks are on the north side of the bridge. The bridge in question is a low-level timber bridge that dates from 1896. When the bridge is flooded it becomes impassable. In this case, children who live on the south side of the bridge can only get to school if the bus takes a one-kilometre, circuitous and dangerous route on a dirt mountain road. This makes it particularly hard for students from Merimbula to get to the high school in Eden. Residents south of the river are similarly cut off from Pambula Hospital. Getting to or returning home from work becomes very difficult in the case of flood. This creates obvious problems for both employers and employees in the area, not to mention the question of the safety of those who might need to access the hospital urgently.

The Princes Highway provides a vital transport corridor for industry and tourism for south-eastern Australia. The region has been the focus of considerable investment in tourism, timber and forestry, the cheese industry and new wharf facilities in Eden. The population swells during the summer months and there is a history of many serious accidents occurring on the road when the traffic bottlenecks around the Pambula River bridge.

The Pambula bridge is the only freight access from the south to the north of Bega. This clearly creates a problem for local industries that are dependent upon freight from Victoria. Freight and timber trucks and B-doubles cannot take an alternative route. Under the New South Wales government's Country Timber Bridge Program, the RTA proposed building a concrete bridge at the same or similar grade to the existing timber bridge. Whilst increasing the safety of the bridge, not raising its level would ensure that residents, tourists and industry would still encounter difficulties due to flooding. The commonsense solution is to raise the level of the bridge. As one resident suggested:

... raising the height of the proposed bridge and its approaches by half a metre would dramatically reduce the frequency of flooding as the road rarely floods more than half a metre. Moreover any flood over that height is soon dispersed.

The provision of a totally flood-free crossing of the Pambula River would cost more than $30 million, according to RTA estimates. Both the Bega Valley Shire Council and local residents have recognised that this as an impractical solution. The Deputy Mayor and Bega Valley Shire Council proposed an alternative solution to the New South Wales Minister for Transport and Minister for Roads, the Hon. Carl Scully. This compromise would take the form of a new bridge approximately 1½ metres higher than that proposed by the RTA, together with associated earthworks and other infrastructure for the entire width of the Pambula flood plain. This would provide flood-free access during all but one-in-20-year floods. The estimated cost of this solution would be in the region of $9 to $10 million.

The minister promised a further $1.5 million for the project, on top of an already promised $3.5 million—a total commitment of $5 million. This is subject to the federal government matching the funds with up to $5 million under the Roads of National Importance program to achieve an outcome that is acceptable to the local community and which supports regional growth.

The importance of a flood-free Pambula bridge to residents on the far South Coast is clear: it is a matter of getting children to school, supporting employment and ensuring access to basic health facilities. The Princes Highway acts as the main artery for transport to the South Coast, where no train services are available to relieve the traffic congestion in peak times throughout the year.

The Princes Highway at Pambula is also of national importance. The region is experiencing strong growth, with several key infrastructure projects in train. Construction is currently under way on the $25 million multipurpose wharf at Twofold Bay near Eden. This wharf is part of a $40 million defence project that will meet the Navy's long-term logistic and ammunitioning requirements for its East Coast based fleet. It is anticipated that the multipurpose wharf will draw new industries to the region, attracted by the quality of the infrastructure and the harbour. Much of the building materials and equipment for the new naval ammunitions depot to the north of Eden will need to be brought in over the Pambula bridge.

Local industry in Bega is also jeopardised when flooding forces the bridge to close. Bega Cheese, which recently received a $770,000 grant under the Dairy Regional Assistance Program, is an important driver of local jobs and has also had a major impact on dairy industry suppliers outside of New South Wales. Bega Cheese has been experiencing rapid growth, with resulting major increases in the company's freight road tonnage. Much of this increase goes via the Princes Highway to Melbourne, both into and out of the factory. Dairy supplies clearly have a short shelf life and this becomes a dire problem when supplies from Victoria cannot get to Bega Cheese because the bridge is flooded. The alternative route through Delegate and the Gippsland region is a dangerous and narrow road, not capable of taking heavy traffic for any long period of time.

The Princes Highway acts as a lifeline for the far South Coast. Without alternative means of transport, the economy of the south-east region of Australia is inextricably linked to road transport and to the Princes Highway in particular. In light of this, a highway that is periodically cut off for days at a time should be a matter of some urgency.

I would like to congratulate the residents of the Bega and Eden region, particularly Wilma Chinnock, for lobbying so effectively on this issue. If it had not been for their concerted and dedicated efforts, the bridge would have been replaced at its current level. I am pleased to lend my support to their request that the Princes Highway from Pambula to the Victorian border be declared a road of national importance.

Senate adjourned at 11.30 p.m.