Wendy Machin – NRMA President and Former Politician

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NRMA President and former politician, Wendy Machin, has made no secret of the fact that she’s sick of the spin and empty promises from politicians about fixing roads. In her role at the NRMA, Wendy has worked to draw attention to issues affecting local communities regarding the appalling state of Australian roads …

At approximately this time last year, as part of a survey instigated by the NRMA, the North Coast stretch of the Pacific Highway between Coffs Harbour and Macksville was voted the state’s worst road leading into the State Election …

I spoke to Wendy about the NRMA’s work in lobbying the State and Federal Government to make good its target of meeting the 2016 Pacific Highway Upgrade.

Approximately 12 months ago, the NRMA’s Red Flag survey voted the road between Coffs Harbour and Macksville as the worst stretch of road on the Pacific Highway… What funding commitments have you been able to achieve for Mid North Coast road projects since this survey took place?

It’s important to remember the NRMA is a membership organisation and we’re a lobby group, and that’s the two things our members want us to do in that order – roadside and lobbying. We get criticised from time-to-time that we can’t make things faster, and we share that frustration. We just have to keep pushing and reminding politicians that things need to be done, and we try to use those 2 million members to reinforce our point.

Since the time of the survey, we’ve had a change of government and a new Minister. We’ve had the first State Budget, which allocated a lot of money and made a major commitment over the next three-to-four years for the Pacific Highway. We had a meeting with a Federal Minister just before Christmas, and he urged us to continue with our lobbying − because it helps him in his fight with Treasury to get the money.

We were told by the road building authorities that the upgrade can still be done by 2016 if State and Federal Governments make that funding commitment now. The planning is at such a stage that if they know the money is coming, they can still finish that road in the next four years … and that’s a big ask, when you consider that there’s still nearly half of it to be built, with a lot of it still in the planning, and in some cases, early stages, but it’s not actually done.

In terms of the infrastructure, do you really think it’s achievable to meet the 2016 Pacific Highway Upgrade target? It seems to be a bit nebulous, in terms of whether the funding will arrive or not …

I’m told by the local officers of Roads and Maritime Services that their planning and pre-planning and pre-construction work is at such a stage that if they were told this month that they’ve got a guarantee of money, then they can do it. The problem is it’s such a stop-start process. It’s a real scattergun approach, and it’s a really inefficient way to build. This highway has cost us God knows much more than it should, than if we’d just gone on at the outset and built it straight through.

In light of the recent tragedy which occurred at Urunga, do you think there will be attention paid to this particular stretch of road – the same stretch of road that NRMA members highlighted as the worst part of the Pacific Highway approximately this time last year? 

Our members actually nominated the Pacific Highway as the worst road − and that wasn’t just people living on it; that was people outside the region, so it just shows here the concern about the highway and why it needs to be finished. That part of the highway is clearly substandard by any measure and if we get the work done, then we know those horrendous sorts of accidents are significantly reduced and head-ons are virtually eliminated. There is no doubt that upgrading the highway greatly reduces the risks.

The safety benefits of a dual-divided carriageway are far-reaching. Can you tell us what the main benefits are?

There are enormous benefits. The risk of accidents is reduced enormously. It decreases travelling times, which increases economic benefits for tourists and for industry. It allows trucks and cars to use the road together much more safely and like it or not, we’re going to see a lot more trucks on our roads, so we have to have roads that can cope with them.

By reducing the costs of fatalities and injury, you’re reducing the cost to the community. Each death and injury costs millions of dollars to the community. By improving the highway you’re not only just getting rid of the time delays, traffic jams and risk of crashes, you’re actually adding enormously to the economic benefit of the state, because you reduce the cost of crashes, improve the efficiency of the traffic that moves up and down that road. So there’s a strong economic connection to it, as well as a safety one.

There is job creation to consider as well …

There’s job creation along the way. For many towns that are bypassed, I know they sometimes feel anxious at first, but then it turns out to be a benefit. I’m sure that Kempsey will be delighted to get all of that traffic out of its main street. I’m old enough to remember when I used to have to go through Port Macquarie – it’s gone ahead in leaps and bounds. The main street of Taree is much more attractive now and more user friendly than it was when a highway went through there. There can be lots of benefits for local communities as well.

What can people on the Mid North Coast do to persuade the Federal and State Governments to provide funding to fix the roads?

They can do what they’ve been doing. Support us – we’ve all been saying the same thing. The group, Doctors for a Safer Pacific Highway, has been busy lobbying State and Federal Government, trying to fast-track the upgrade. Those doctors are to be admired for what they’re doing, because they’re the people who have to go out and pick up the pieces when there’s a tragedy. Keep talking to local Members, and keep the pressure on about those sections of road.

As I say, the guys who build the roads have told us they could finish the roads by 2016 if they have a promise by State and Federal Governments that they’ll get the money; we need to make sure that money is forthcoming. Collectively, we need to do this as a lobby group with our reports and tools, plus as individuals, by going to local Members and constantly pushing.

One of the good things is most parts of the highway are now represented by Members of Parliament who are in government, so they are in a position to make decisions and to push for funding.

Do you have any campaigns that you will be rolling out to push for better funding for roads?

Funny you should ask that. We are going to be doing another Red Flag survey and are shortly going to be asking people again about the sorts of things that are concerning them.

We belong to the AAA (Australian Automobile Association), which represents all of the Clubs around Australia, and they’re going to be releasing the AusRAP report (Australians Road Assessment Program), which is modelled on an international effort. Essentially, what it does is looks at all the National and Federal highways and ranks them in a star rating sort of system (like we used to with safety on cars and bridges).

This is a fairly scientific way of looking at roads – the risk of the shoulders, quality of the pavement, how many lanes, if it’s divided, if there’s a centre lane barrier … They look at the risk and the quality of the road and can directly relate that and improvements on roads to savings to the economy, so it’s quite a precise and non-emotional tool for looking at our roads and knowing which is the worst in terms of safety.

The Pacific Highway is not going to come out too well, as it’s going to show that it has a higher percentage of accidents, and it’s getting worse since the last survey. Again, this will add to the call for the work to be done.

You can find out more about the AusRAP Report at: http://www.ausrap.org/ausrap/performance-tracking-report/

To find out more about roads funding, contact Member for Myall Lakes, Stephen Bromhead:  6555 4099 / e: myalllakes@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Interview by Karen Farrell.

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