Update on the Blackheath Co-Design Committee
Updated: Jul 22, 2020
My apologies for not compiling something sooner, but much has been happening with the BCC over the past 6 weeks. BCC meeting number 2 occurred on 3rd June as an online forum, and the main topics presented by Transport for NSW were a detailed discussion and graphic presentations of the Outer Western Highway Upgrade Option (aka Centennial Glen), and a less detailed discussion and presentation on the Inner Western Highway Upgrade Option (aka Station Street). Here are the minutes of this meeting, though any real detail of discussion of these two Highway Upgrade Options has been omitted (opens in new tab):
On 19th and 20th June, at the request of BAG and other BCC representatives, TfNSW agreed to accompany the BCC reps on a walk through of the various proposed Blackheath Highway Upgrade options. All of the Stakeholder reps on the BCC attended one of the two sessions, one of the Community reps attended, though interestingly none of the Emergency Services reps on the BCC attended either session, nor did the reps from BMCC. These are the minutes from the Option explanations by TfNSW and the ensuing discussions during the walk through (opens in new tab):
On 1st July, the 3rd BCC meeting was held at the Hydro Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath. After numerous questions from the BCC reps, there were presentations of the proposed option to widen the existing corridor of the Great Western Highway to a 4-lane dual carriageway, presentations on the proposed “Short Tunnel” option, the proposed “Long Tunnel,” and a newer proposed “Middle Distance” tunnel option. Again, details of each of these options are lacking in the official minutes (opens in new tab):
BAG has been meeting with our solicitor to determine how much detail we can give our members about the various options currently being presented to the BCC by the TfNSW team, as the BCC reps have been warned that they may face expulsion for releasing too many details of their plans. Stay tuned for more information!
BCC members, however, have been given the opportunity to present Other Options to be considered by the BCC, but with conditions, as stated in an email to BCC reps last week from KJA, the consultancy firm hired by TfNSW to act as facilitators for the BCC meetings: “In proposing alternative route options for modelling and consideration, please note that these need to be in keeping with the publicly stated purpose and scope of the BCC (bold lettering is theirs). That is to say, the purpose is to facilitate a process for representatives of the community (sic) work collaboratively with TfNSW to refine potential route options, through Blackheath, for the Great Western Highway Upgrade Program; alternative program options – such as a mode shift to rail - are outside the scope of the committee.”
The other alternative program options not mentioned here that the BCC has been told are “outside the scope of the committee” are the No Option option, whereby none of the proposed options presented by TfNSW are accepted, nor is any discussion of Bells Line of Road to be allowed.
Despite the confines of these conditions, today I submitted a Very Long Tunnel Option and a number of near term traffic alleviation and safety measures to the BCC facilitators which has been passed onto TfNSW for consideration as an Other Option to hopefully be discussed in our upcoming BCC meetings. This is the text of my submission:
There is no one simple solution for dealing with the issues of freight movement, safety and traffic flow between the Central West and Sydney that utilises the existing Great Western Highway across the Blue Mountains. But one certainty is that none of the current proposed Katoomba-Lithgow 4-lane dual carriageway upgrade plans by the Regional Transport Ministry are worthy of consideration for multiple reasons, especially with the fantastic costs involved, the lack of consideration for climate change issues, and that little will be achieved other than bringing years and years of hardship to the upper mountains while road works decimate the lovely villages and impact the businesses of the Upper Blue Mountains.
The Ministry for Regional Transport needs to go back to the drawing board and look at the big picture for the future of NSW and the Central West, and stop wasting time and money on trying to figure out how to turn the GWH into an extension of the M4 from Penrith to Bathurst. The GWH may be a state highway, but it is also a local road for 70,000 residents living in the Blue Mountains, with 6 school zones and 27 traffic lights (plus another 5 pedestrian crossing lights) between Glenbrook and Mt Victoria, as well as about 20 different speed limit changes. This road can never become a free-flowing expressway, and these many constraints will never allow it to safely handle trucks greater than 19m, yet this is what TfNSW is hoping can happen with the proposed $4.5bn dollar upgrade between Katoomba and Lithgow.
TfNSW needs to start seriously investigating the Very Long Tunnel Option under the Blue Mountains, with a tunnel starting somewhere in the lower mountains near Glenbrook or Emu Plains, and exiting somewhere near Hartley or farther west. Yes the cost will be very high, but countries smaller than Australia, like Switzerland, have managed to build tunnels as long as what would be required to go under the Blue Mountains. Countries like Canada and Finland already have rail facilities for large trucks and cars to easily load onto rail cars, and an electric conveyor system could then move these vehicles through the tunnel without the need for costly ventilation systems. The time savings between the Central West and Sydney would be far better than the 10 minutes promised by the Regional Transport Minister with his current $4.5 billion proposal for Katoomba to Lithgow, and the cost of moving freight between the Central West and Sydney would drop dramatically. Additionally, a Very Long Tunnel would be an ideal large infrastructure project for providing jobs in a post-Covid world, and it would allow connectivity for the Central West with the new airport planned at Badgerys Creek. The geotechnical studies could start soon to investigate the potential for the Very Long Tunnel. Unlike the proposed Upgrades for Blackheath, which are rumoured to have a Benefit/Cost Ratio below 1 (which is considered untenable for a major infrastructure project), the BCR for the Very Long Tunnel would be well over 1, and some engineers are predicting it could be 3.5 or higher.
Also, TfNSW needs to seriously look at upgrading the highways connecting the New Castle/Sydney/Wollongong region with the Central West via the Hunter Valley, and via the Hume Highway from Goulburn, and to facilitate rail freight connectivity between the Central West and the ports in these cities. For some reason connecting the New Castle/Sydney/Wollongong region with the new Inland Rail project is being side stepped or underfunded, and changing this situation needs to become to top priority for the state government. Low cost, low carbon-emitting freight on rail is the future, not fossil-fuelled trucking of freight.
In the meanwhile attention can be given to near term solutions of traffic issues and safety in the Upper Blue Mountains, which is not currently part of any of the proposed Upgrade options offered by TfNSW. It’s obvious that the proposed 4-lane dual carriageway highway between Katoomba and Lithgow will not alleviate the traffic congestion experienced around Blackheath on Sundays and Holiday weekends. “If you build it, they will come,” as Sydney has found whenever one of the main arterial city highways expands to include more lanes. Gridlock just gets worse, because expanded road systems just encourage more drivers to use their cars. Wentworth Falls and Springwood and other Blue Mountains towns already have a 4-lane dual carriageway, yet traffic regularly backs up there just like in Blackheath on weekends and holidays. And studies show that dual carriageways are not necessarily more safe than non-dual carriageways due to speed and unsafe driving habits.
Here are a number of near term plans for TfNSW to consider and implement:
Install a large illuminated sign on the Castlereagh Highway before entering Lithgow from the north, similar to the signs on the M4, M7, M5 etc, alerting drivers of the travel time options taking Bells Line to Richmond, versus using the GWH to Penrith. This would help take some of the traffic pressure at Blackheath if Sydney-bound drivers knew their time-distance options when approaching Lithgow.
Divert some of the $4.5bn to much needed Black Spot safety upgrades between Katoomba and Blackheath that are currently not being addressed by TfNSW, as well as along Bells Line. Some of the tight curves on both roads could be straightened, and passing lanes could be added on some of the steeper hills along Bells Line to improve safety and shorten travel times. Plus the recent Safety Upgrade that was not finished in Medlow Bath must be completed immediately, with turn lanes added for Bellevue Crescent and Foy Avenue, and a pedestrian traffic light/ zebra crossing between the Hydro Hotel and the Medlow train station would be a welcome safety feature.
Install a Red light camera at Blackheath, and perhaps at other major traffic light intersections through the mountains. Trucks regularly speed through the Govetts Leap/GWH traffic light to save time on their journey. TfNSW keeps saying how the proposed GWH upgrade is necessary for safety, yet when a Blackheath petition was presented to TfNSW requesting a Red light camera at the Govetts Leap intersection, TfNSW said traffic incident records in the area did not warrant installing a camera! Please, installing a Red light camera at this intersection, and at other traffic light intersections, with signs alerting drivers of these cameras, is such an effective and inexpensive way to make the GWH more safe.
Consider removing the parking lane along the GWH in Blackheath on Sunday afternoons and holiday afternoons for 3-5 hours to facilitate the movement of traffic through Blackheath. Of course much thought needs to go into this to help prevent hardship for the businesses along the highway that would lose the parking places for several hours for facilitating traffic movement, but perhaps a compromise could be found to help relieve the temporary congestion that mainly only occurs on Sunday afternoons and at the end of long holiday weekends. Consultation with the Blackheath Chamber of Commerce and the Blackheath Alliance could help come up with a solution that works for businesses and alleviating traffic congestion.
Consider the potential for a traffic circle at the GWH/Govetts Leap intersection, rather than a traffic light. For 10 years or more now in England road planners have had great success with improving both safety and traffic flow on main roads leading through congested village areas near London by replacing traffic lights in these towns. Studies have shown that traffic lights actually encourage drivers to speed up rather than slow down, while traffic circles naturally cause drivers to slow down. The nearby Bundarra railway crossing will add to the difficulty of planning how to manage a traffic circle, but it’s worth looking at. I’m sure there have been similar problematic intersections where solutions have been found in England or other countries, if not in Australia, and it would be worth consulting with those traffic planners for ideas to help solve the GWH/Govetts Leap/railway intersection issues. And perhaps an overhead signal light could be added at the Bundarra/Station St junction to help the flow of traffic that backs up at this intersection on weekends, with the signal light stopping traffic for approaching trains.
Encourage tourists to use the trains between Sydney and Bathurst by putting on more passenger trains on weekends with more cars in the morning for west bound trains, and more cars for eastbound trains in the afternoons. To further encourage tourists to take the train rather than drive to the Blue Mountains (onwards of 8 million tourists now come to the Blue Mountains every year, with the far majority arriving in private vehicles), some of the $4.5bn can be spent on free electric shuttle buses that would greet arriving train passengers at Mt Victoria, Blackheath, Medlow Bath, Katoomba, Leura, Wentworth Falls, Glenbrook and other stations, and these shuttle buses would then do a regular circuit within each village to the main attractions. Free electric shuttle buses could also operate between Mt Victoria, Blackheath and Katoomba, as well as Wentworth Falls, Leura and Katoomba, and perhaps there could also be a free tourist rail pass for train passengers to move between the various towns in the mountains while they visit, making a vehicle-free visit much easier for our tourists. TfNSW is in charge of State Rail now so it wouldn't be hard to implement climate- and traffic-friendly ideas like this.
If we all put our thinking caps on, we can surely come up with many more ideas that can lead to improved safety, less traffic congestion and faster travel times, as well as major infrastructure plans for the future that help address climate change issues. I will not allow our World Heritage Blue Mountains to be turned into a cement freeway for 30-m trucks burning fossil fuels, and I believe the majority of people throughout the Blue Mountains, Sydney, NSW and Australia would stand beside me on this.
It is my hope that TfNSW will seriously look at the Very Long Tunnel Option, accept it as an Other Option, which the BCC has been told is within the rules, and that discussion of this Other Option by the BCC will be allowed during the 4th and if necessary, 5th meeting of the BCC.
Gary McCue, BCC representative
Blackheath Highway Action Group
We shall see what kind of reception my proposal(s) have with TfNSW, and whether any consideration will be given for discussion within the context of the BCC. It’s time for road planning in Australia to climb out of the 1980s and move into the 21st century.
All of you should have received the letterbox drop flyer two weekends ago, co-signed by BAG and 18 other community and business groups from Blackheath, asking everyone to write Paul Toole MP and Trish Doyle MP to request that the Centennial Glen and Station Street Highway Options be taken off the table, and to remove TfNSW’s Gray Strategic Corridor from Western Blackheath. If you haven’t written a letter yet, it’s not too late. Every letter helps to remove this horrible economic shackle from our town!
The next BCC meeting will be held on 5th August, hopefully here in Blackheath now that the Community Hall is once again available for functions. It’s good to support our local community whenever possible!
That’s it for now.
No houses lost in Blackheath! Say No! to giant fossil-fueled trucks.