‘Unacceptable’. Calls for Brown Mountain upgrade to be top priority in 20-year regional plan

The Monaro Highway on Brown Mountain has been unstable for many years, with regular lane closures causing delays. Photo: Transport NSW.

The 10-kilometer winding route of the Brown Mountain section of the Monaro Highway has remained virtually unchanged since Federation and there are renewed calls for its urgent upgrade following a string of landslips, rockslides, tree falls and road closures in recent years.

The Merimbula-Eden Branch of the NSW Liberal Party has made a submission to the Draft South East and Tablelands Regional Plan seeking an upgrade or relocation of what it has labeled as a “constricted and compromised” stretch of the highway. It has also suggested tunnels could be one solution.

The Brown Mountain route is the main east-west transport link between Canberra, Cooma, the Riverina and the coast, providing essential access for freight, emergency services and visitors to the region.

Branch communications advisor Jon Gaul believes the upgrade should be the “principal planning issue for the south-east” as part of a review of the region’s 20-year strategic blueprint.

In the submission, he says the Brown Mountain section of the highway should be granted Roads of Strategic Importance (ROSI) status, which would attract significant investment from the NSW and Federal Governments.

The submission says Canberra, not Sydney, is the metropolitan focus for the Far South Coast sub-region and a safe and reliable transport link is required.

“Canberra airport is the gateway. Canberra hospital is the health hub,” Mr Gaul said.

He says stage one of the upgrade “should enable a $15 million comprehensive feasibility and design study of the costs, timelines and optimum location to provide B-double truck and tourism access from Cooma to the coast”, either via Brown Mountain or “an appropriate alternative location”.

“The steep, winding, 10-kilometer Brown Mountain section of the Snowy Mountains Highway is the major bottleneck preventing high productivity vehicles (trucks longer than 26m) supporting key employment activity in the Bega Valley and discouraging tourism access to the beaches and coastal towns of the Far South Coast,” Mr Gaul added.

“Brown Mountain is geologically unstable, subject to continuing landslips, rockslides, tree falls, road closures, continuing costly road and cuttings reconstruction, safety concerns and traffic delays.”

The Brown Mountain route currently has two single lane traffic light-controlled sections, due to major landslips and the delay is expected to continue until at least early 2023. The dangerous section of highway has a 60 km/h speed limit and continuous double lines throughout its 1000-metre ascent, with 77 bends, including five switchback hairpin bends.

“Trucks and buses descending must use low gear, while the absence of any safe and practicable pullover sections generates extensive traffic backups, often doubling the normal 15-minute traffic descent time,” Mr Gaul said.

Boulders, Brown Mountain

Rock falls and landslides like this cause regular road closures on Brown Mountain. Photo: Region Media.

The Draft Regional Plan refers to Bega Cheese as the principal contributor to future population increase in the Bega Valley and the Liberals fear the Brown Mountain transport restrictions may ultimately lead to the company headquarters moving out of Bega to a more accessible location in Victoria.

“This would negatively impact population growth as well as the Bega Cheese local economic and jobs presence – the largest and only significant private sector employer in the Bega Shire,” Mr Gaul said.

The Bega Valley is also cut off from B-double truck access from the north due to pinch points and narrow bridges on the Princes Highway south from Moruya to Bega.

The Liberals say greater focus on regional connectivity is also essential from both a domestic and international tourism perspective.

Tourism infrastructure improvements are enhancing the natural attractions of the Far South Coast region, including the $44 million cruise wharf and $6.8m cruise Welcome Center in the Port of Eden. Upgrading of port access roadworks and the Eden Harbor revitalization project will also generate associated private sector property and retail developments.

The new $14.5m Timber Optimization Hub at the Eden chip mill will sustain local timber industry employment, however, Mr Gaul says the “true potential of these public and private sector investments and initiatives will not be realized while the Brown Mountain bottleneck endures”.

He says Brown Mountain, as the main east-west road link, also presents an “unusually high risk for travelers and evacuees in the event of further severe bushfires or natural disasters”.

“The sudden evacuation order that non-resident visitors leave the Bega Valley during the severe bushfires of 2019/20 saw many vehicles travel up the Brown Mountain when exiting the region,” Mr Gaul explained.

At the time the Princes Highway to the south was blocked and, fortunately, there were no significant impediments to escaping vehicles caused by landslips on the mountain section.

Mr Gaul says the prospect of future emergency situations, such as a bushfire evacuation, makes the need to upgrade this section of the Snowy Mountains Highway an even more pressing planning issue.

The section of highway has remained largely unchanged for 120 years, with road and engineering crews fighting an unending battle against the geological instability of Brown Mountain.

Mr Gaul says the State and Federal Governments must find ways to upgrade and straighten the route in its existing location, investigate tunneling through the mountain or identify an alternate route for the highway to negotiate the 1000-metre escarpment overlooking the Bega Valley.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” he said.

The draft South East and Tablelands Regional Plan 2041 was on exhibition from 8 August to 23 September and is a key part of the draft plan’s first five-yearly review to reset priorities and extend the plan’s reach to 2041.

The plan will set the framework, vision and direction for land-use planning and aims to harness opportunities to improve the region’s economic and social wellbeing and grow jobs and housing.

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