Transcript—Interview with ABC Coffs Coast

Interview

DCI023/2016

12 December 2016

Subjects: Pacific Highway upgrades and road safety

Carla Mascarenhas: Well Darren Chester is the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. He's just been going—just finished a fact finding mission on the Pacific Highway where he's driven from Sydney to the Tweed and he joins me now. Good morning Minister.

Darren Chester: Good morning, Carla.

Carla Mascarenhas: What did you notice on your fact finding mission? What facts did you find out?

Darren Chester: Well in relation to the Pacific Highway itself I think the progress on the project has been very good. There's about 70 per cent of project now completed and we're talking about a $10 billion project involving the Commonwealth and New South Wales Government on a road which will eventually by 2020 have four lanes, two lanes in both directions, improving travel times by a couple of hours and I guess most importantly for me as someone who's very passionate about road safety we're going to see further reductions in serious injuries and fatalities on the road. So from the Pacific Highway perspective I think the work is quite remarkable and the progress is underway focused around the coast area where you are, and we're going to see a lot of work there in the order of 3000-odd workers over the next 12 months rolling out a lot more projects. So it's a great project and it's rolling out quite well.

Carla Mascarenhas: You mentioned road fatalities, we know that country people are over represented in statistics and that fatalities are actually up remarkably compared to last year. What's your government doing to improve the road deaths in regional areas?

Darren Chester: You're right Carla. What we've seen in Australia over the last 40 years has been a steady reduction in road trauma and serious injuries and fatalities. In the last two years there's been a spike in many parts of Australia, particularly in regional New South Wales and regional Victoria. I've got no doubt that part of that is attributable to road conditions. Part of it is the driver's behaviour themselves and also safer vehicles, so it's a multifaceted approach. We've got record spending going on right now in parts of New South Wales on…

Carla Mascarenhas: It doesn't seem to be working though because the road deaths have gone up.

Darren Chester: No, to be fair there's record spending going on in terms of the Pacific Highway project and the Roads to Recovery funding for local government black spots. So there's money going into roads so that's part of the equation. I think as drivers ourselves we've got to take responsibility as well for the safety of people in our own cars and other road users and that's probably why there are challenges in terms of driver behaviour making sure we're reinforcing those safety messages. But I think the thing that changed I guess in the last few years is that the penetration of mobile phones in terms of they're available all the time and they're quite distracting, I think they're playing a role in perhaps distracting drivers. So it's one of those issues where we can never lose our focus on it particularly when we've seen an increase in the last couple of years on our regional roads where obviously you live in, and I live in regional Victoria, we want to make sure we do everything we can to reduce that road trauma.

Carla Mascarenhas: Let me put some listener questions. Did you drive yourself on the highway?

Darren Chester: Absolutely, I drove the whole way. I drove from Hexham to the Tweed. We did that over a couple of days. In that regard we were stopping along the way meeting with local members of Parliament like David Gillespie and Luke Hartsuyker and Kevin Hogan, and also talking to communities and the feedback you provided through your talkback line just there before was pretty consistent with the information we received on those smaller and arterial roads leading on to the Pacific Highway. There's a lot of concern about the condition of those roads and that's something we need to work with local and state governments on.

Carla Mascarenhas: We'll get to that in a minute. Let's talk about the Coffs bypass because we've had a question on that. How many times did you have to stop in Coffs Harbour with those traffic lights? Because I think in five kilometres of road there's 12 traffic lights.

Darren Chester: That's right. I took on this role in February and probably the first person to knock on my door and ask for me to discuss a local issue was Luke Hartsuyker, he wanted to…

Carla Mascarenhas: But how many times did you have to stop?

Darren Chester: Six or seven times, I can't recall Carla, but the point of the matter is we've got $10 billion going into this duplication project by 2020 and obviously the next big project is going to be what do you do with the Coffs Harbour greater city area and the bypass is obviously a critical project. So Luke Hartsuyker as the local member is certainly making it clear to me that that's what the community expectation is, that that project will get underway sooner rather than later. But at the same time we've got to finish the job we started by 2020 in terms of the duplication works which is going quite well.

Carla Mascarenhas: My understanding is that the RMS still has to purchase lots of properties up and down the highway. They can't purchase those properties without money allocated in the Budget. Will there be money in the Federal Budget next year for the Coffs bypass?

Darren Chester: Well you're not going to surprise me here, I'm not going to announce the Federal Budget six months before it occurs Carla. But what I can say, you need to do the planning work first of all, then there's the acquisition of land and the geotechnical work, and then finally we start the construction, so it is a long process and I know people get frustrated by the fact it does take a long time to build these major projects, but I think there's a recognition at the state and federal level that the Coffs bypass is a critical project. You get all these time savings between Hexham and the Tweed of two to two and a half hours, they're going to lose some of that timing [indistinct] and we need to make sure that we're planning for longer term with the type of projects that our kids and our grandkids will thank us for in the future.

Carla Mascarenhas: What did you hear up and down when you were driving about the economic impact for a bypass to towns?

Darren Chester: Look it is different feedback. When you do a bypass in a major regional centre there's often a concern that you'll have a deterioration to local economy, at the same time the amenity and improvements to local residents in those towns and the safety upgrade are something of great value as well. I think our challenge is going to be once we get the duplicator road all the way through is making sure we encourage people to still take a break, whether it's in rest areas or get out and explore our small coastal towns and regional centres.

We've seen up and down the coast where there has been bypasses on the Pacific Highway or the Princes Highway further south, but those smaller regional coastal towns still do very well if they're good at attracting the travelling public to drop in and visit their region. So I don't think it's all economic doom and gloom in that regard. I think it's got to be something we need to work on and make sure we get the signage right and promote the great attractions of the coastal regions, particularly in such a beautiful part of Australia.

Carla Mascarenhas: Did you see much rubbish on the highway?

Darren Chester: Yeah, there's a bit of rubbish around, I find that very frustrating. I see a lot of people seem to think they can just drive along and throw rubbish out willy-nilly, and that's an issue for us. I didn't notice it particularly on the Pacific Highway, I've seen in the past that Newell Highway's particular bad, so I think it's definitely an issue for us, and we've all got to take pride in our great environment, and throwing rubbish out the window is just the ultimate form of laziness and an insult to other people who appreciate our regions.

Carla Mascarenhas: Can I pass on some feedback? We get so many text messages about the amount of rubbish on the new highway, and also the old highway, but the new highway. There's not enough bins, there's not enough rest stops with bins there. Are you going to do something about it?

Darren Chester: Well on that point, you say there's not enough bins, and that's a ridiculous proposition that people use as a justification for throwing rubbish out. I mean, you drive along, you have a plastic bag in your car and when you get to a bin you put it in. I mean it's passing responsibility onto someone else for our own behaviour. Now in terms of rest areas, I actually believe the rest areas were quite well placed along the Pacific Highway when we drove along. We stopped quite a few times to take a break, and I thought they were quite well placed. In terms of the amenity at those services, we can talk to the New South Wales Government about if there's enough facilities there or not, but to blame the lack of bins for throwing rubbish out the window I think is the ultimate in passing responsibility to someone else.

Carla Mascarenhas: Well I'm just passing on the listener feedback, that they're saying that there is...

Darren Chester: Oh no I wasn't having a go at you, Carla.

Carla Mascarenhas: There's a lot of rubbish, they are take—you know, listeners are actually personally getting their rubbish bags out and walking up and down the highway, which cannot be safe, and picking up the rubbish because they are so concerned about it. Now you would have heard people in the streets in Port Macquarie talking about their road network. Now I understand that a lot of those roads were local roads, and that isn't really what you do, you're the Federal Minister, but the Federal Government has the greatest potential to raise revenue when it comes to raising money to fund these local roads. So how are you helping councillors who just seem to be unable to deal with their road network?

Darren Chester: It's an interesting point when you say it's not what we do at a federal level. The Federal Government is a major supporter of local roads through the Roads to Recovery Program, which many of your listeners have probably heard about. It's been going for about, I think, nearly 20 years now. We've had increased funding for Roads to Recovery over the past three years, and the good thing about that program is that local governments themselves choose their local priorities. It's not a question of me enforcing a project on them; they choose how to spend their millions of dollars in the local community.

Now the feedback we're receiving in relation to that program is it is very successful, but obviously from the listeners concerned there's a lot more work to be done along the coast. The other program we have is the $500 million we put into the Road Black Spots Program, which has focus been just on road safety itself. It's not a generic program in that regard; the councils have to come to us with a road that has a bad accident history. So there's work going on between the Federal Government and local governments, but I accept the feedback and I recognise the feedback up and down the coast and right throughout regional Australia. We need to keep investing in our local road network. As someone who drives about 60,000 kilometres a year myself, I find there's a lot of local country roads that could do with a lot more work, and it's a question of how we can work with local government to get on top of those projects.

Carla Mascarenhas: And the feedback from local government is that there's a lot of cost shifting going on, that they're having to do more and more of that work. Let's take a road like Bucketts Way in the Gloucester Shire repeatedly in the top ten for the worst roads in the State. That council would like that road to be a federal road. Is there any appetite for that?

Darren Chester: Well no, there wouldn't be. There are situations where as a Federal Government we have what we call the National Road Network where we're working in partnership with the states on those major routes like the Pacific Highway or the Newell Highway. Those are the kind of projects where we're putting in very significant amounts of money. It's a product of our system of government with three levels of government where it can be confusing for motorists, I accept that, where you've got local roads and then state roads and federal roads. We're doing our share in terms of funding for the Pacific Highway right now, an 80-20 split on some of these major projects where we're providing 80 per cent of the money. Certainly in terms of Roads to Recovery we're providing local governments funding for their local priorities.

It's not a question as whether we'd take over a particular road. We're certainly providing funding for some of Bucketts Way upgrades, and I know the local community wants to see that work progress more quickly, and it's a question for me as a Minister with a constrained budget to spend the money in the best possible way I can and make sure we get a fair share out to the regional communities.

Carla Mascarenhas: We'll leave it there, thank you very much.

Darren Chester: Have a great day and stay safe on the roads.