By ERWIN CHLANDA
Are there more pressing civil works on which $24m of public money could have been be spent rather than the railway overpass nearing completion on the Stuart Highway some 20 km south of town?
The Town Council, the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Central Australia (TCA) think so.
Yet the overpass “was identified by the Northern Territory Government as a priority project” according to a spokesman for Warren Truss, Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, which is providing the cash.
“The Australian Government will continue to work with the Northern Territory Government to identify and deliver transport infrastructure improvements in the Northern Territory,” says the spokesman.
This makes it clear the funding could have been applied to a variety of projects.
So who in the NT Government “identified” the project? It was the Department of Transport.
Why? The department says in a statement to the Alice Springs News Online: “Because it was the last rail overpass required on the Northern Territory National Highways.”
What makes that a requirement? That’s something we would have liked to ask Clare Gardiner-Barnes, but “she is not available for an interview,” as were were told.
We sought to put this and other questions to her as the chairperson of the Transport Infrastructure Investment Industry Advisory Group (TIIAG), which we understand is a group putting to the government the views of the public, or a significant part of it, ensuring these views are taken notice of.
As it turns out Ms Gardiner-Barnes (pictured) is also the Chief Executive of the Department of Transport.
This seems odd: Here we have a lobby group that is chaired by the person who is also heading up the instrumentality which is being lobbied. It gets worse.
The Department of Transport said in response to questions about the project from the News: “The Department also collates feedback from stakeholders as to what their priorities are.
“For example, the recently formed Transport Infrastructure Investment Industry Advisory Group has provided input into the 2015-16 budget formulation.”
So Ms Gardiner-Barnes, in her dual role, would be in an excellent position to enlighten the public about how her department obtained “feedback from stakeholders” on the overpass or other projects projects. If the council, the Chamber and TCA are not the town’s major “stakeholders,” then who is?
But not only is she unavailable to answer questions, a departmental minder refused to disclose the identities and contact details of the group’s other members, insisting that we provide questions in writing to her, and to her alone.
We declined to engage in an endless toing and froing of emails on the grounds that an interview is more economical: It had taken this minder five days to provide just the name of Ms Gardiner-Barnes.
The overpass will certainly not bring a single additional visitor.
It is hardly an accident hotspot.
The red lights are clearly doing the job well. Does Ms Gardiner-Barnes have evidence to the contrary?
A set of boom gates, costing a tiny fraction of the overpass, would have make things just perfect. There is a far more frequented level crossing on the Stuart Highway not far north of Port Augusta.
Even for motorists encountering the sparse rail traffic it wouldn’t be a major inconvenience, given the 16-hour plus drive to Adelaide, or five hours to the Rock.
And in the exceedingly rare event that emergency vehicles need to cross when a train is approaching, the train can be signaled to stop briefly to let these vehicles past.
So why build this white elephant when there are much more urgent and useful projects begging for money?
Stuart Ord, General Manager of TCA, who has a seat on the TIIAG, says his group is “always advocating for access improvements to tourism products where it believes tourism outcomes for Central Australia can be improved.
“A case in point is the sealing of the 43km section of the Larapinta Drive between Hermannsburg and Namatjira Drive turnoff west of Hermannsburg, a project which has been championed at the TIIAG.”
Mr Ord says the TIIAG was only established in November 2014 and “the project mentioned commenced well before the establishment of that group”.
So if the Department of Transport did not use the TIIAG to “collate feedback from stakeholders as to what their priorities are,” how did they do it?
Mr Ord, Mayor Damien Ryan and Kay Eade, CEO of the Chamber of Industries, all say they have not been consulted by the department about the overpass.
Mr Ryan says the national highway may need an overpass but so does Alice Springs, cut in halves by the railway line.
Mr Ryan says: “The western side is not protected in a fire or other emergency when a train is on the track.”
He says he has long advocated an underpass or overpass at the Larapinta Drive rail crossing, “to join the town together”.
The emergency services – police, ambulance and fire brigade – are in the middle of the town.
The Todd, when is flood, is cutting off the eastern suburbs, he says.
Ms Eade says “our infrastructure is behind third world countries” and investment decisions should be made to stimulate employment opportunities and economic growth.
Roads to mining projects are one example.
She says the overpass is providing a temporary stimulus for “a firm based in Darwin with an office in Alice Springs” but it has no long term economic benefits.