By ERWIN CHLANDA
The Outback Way and the Explorers Way could combine to provide a self-drive tourism bonanza for The Centre if only the governments – NT, SA, WA, Queensland and Federal – would put the funding pedal to the metal.
The Outback Way is more than a crossing of the continent from east to west. Combined with the north-south Explorers Way it could be part of circumnavigations of the south-eastern and the south-western quarters of the nation – every inch of it on bitumen.
And the beauty of that is: Central Australia, and its tourism business, would be part of both.
Richard Barwick, CEO of the Campervan & Motorhome Club of Australia, says: “Many of our members choose not to take their vehicles off sealed roads, so it would be every chance if the road is sealed [the area] would receive more patronage.”
He says of the 620,000 registered RVs in Australia, it is estimated that 135,000 can be on the road at anyone time.
In the Northern Territory, northern Western Australia and in Queensland this number could be increased by the cooler weather conditions in the southern states during April to October.
“Our spend profile of our members tells us that they spend abut $770 each week whilst on the road.”
To make it happen right now extends to little more than planting signs (pictured) along the Stuart Highway between Coober Pedy and the NT border.
“Both Jay [Weatherill, SA Premier] and I believe driving the Stuart Highway should be a bucket list item for every Australian and for people around the world,” said Mr Gunner in June last year.
“This will be one of the items we will work on at our historic joint SA and NT Cabinet meeting here in Alice Springs next month.”
“Ah yes, ‘a historic agreement between South Australia and the Northern Territory [that] will usher in a new era of collaboration’ – hmm, yet another one,” commented local historian Alex Nelson at the time.
Information on the web shows attractions in the South Australian Flinders Ranges – but these are well to the east of the Stuart Highway, and much of it on dirt roads.
Apart from the Painted Desert (described as a three hour ’round trip – on dirt) the SA part of the Explorer Way website offers nothing to the traveller between Port Augusta and Alice Springs.
That is, apart from Coober Pedy, the Cadney Roadhouse “which has good facilities and essential services for visitors” and Marla “also recommended for a fuel stop”.
Between the border and Alice Springs all the website for the Explorers Way has to offer is that you can turn off to Uluru – 250 km west of that Stuart Highway which Mr Gunner says “should be a bucket list item …”
Apart from the roadside signs little has changed on the Stuart Highway – dusty rest stops ringed with used toilet paper. That even applies to Bon Bon Rest Area (pictured at top), one of the few which have toilets, that can hardly be called clean. All it has by way of advertising the Explorers Way are damaged panels, the main image of an attraction showing a picture of the Painted Desert with a bit of text (at left).
Where are the places, maintained in a clean and tidy state, to take in the vastness of the country, the stony desert with hardly a tree to be seen anywhere, the night skies, the creek beds to walk in, the tracks down to shimmering salt lakes, the flocks of birds and their chorus at sunrise, hundreds of kangaroos at night, the cleanest air in the world?
FROM THE ENGINEERS’ DESK …
Meanwhile the NT Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics has provided further information about the discrepancies of Outback Way road sealing costs in the Territory when compared to the adjoining shires in Queensland (Boulia) and WA (Laverton).
The department says the Australian and Northern Territory governments “have significantly invested in capital upgrades on the Outback Way in recent years, initially through a $40m jointly funded package (50:50) which delivered projects on both the Plenty Highway and Tjukaruru Road [Olgas to Docker River].”
Further funding under the Developing the North – Northern Australia Roads Program – will deliver investment of $35m:
• $25m extending the seal on the Plenty Highway (Australian Government $20m and the NT $5m).
• $10m extending the seal Tjukaruru Road (Feds $8m, NT $2m).
“Along with the above capital upgrades the NT also undertakes maintenance activities on the roads throughout each year, in 2017-18 $3.5m has been allocated for works including routine grading, pavement reseals, gravel resheets and shoulder repairs,” says the department.
“It is important to note that the NT procures both design commissions and construction contracts through a competitive open tender process to ensure value for money.”
The Alice Springs News Online understands both shires are thinking about tendering for jobs in the NT sections close to them.
“The sections in WA and Queensland are already built up and require less work,” says the department.
“If the road is below the natural surface level then it needs to be ‘built up’ to ensure that water does not pond on the road during periods of rain. So a road can still be a formed gravel road but below natural surface and so earthworks are required to raise the level of the road prior to a new gravel pavement being laid and the sealing of the road,” says the department.
“Earthworks are a significant portion of the overall road building cost and so if the road is well below the surrounding natural surface then this adds to the cost per kilometre.
“The actual cost depends on the lift required but could be approximately 25-50% of the overall cost to construct a new sealed road in Central Australia. The majority of the unsealed roads throughout the Territory are at or below the natural surface as maintenance grading lowers the road over time.
“When an unsealed road is also upgraded to a sealed road there may also be alignment upgrades required so that the geometry of the road meets current Austroad Guidelines (or Australian standards) as vehicles tend to travel faster on sealed roads and so the correct geometry (curves etc.) is more important.
“Full reconstruction of a remote rural road that is below natural surface (including formation, lift, drainage and sealing) will cost between $650,000 to $850,000/km.
“If the road is at the required level and the formation is wide enough then cost to construct the pavement and seal can reduce to between $325,000 and $425,000/km.”
The department says road pavement thickness is designed for the forecast traffic over the design life. The Outback Way route has generally low average annual daily traffic (apart from Lasseter Highway) and so a minimum gravel pavement thickness of 150mm has been agreed across the jurisdictions.
“Generally roads in the Northern Territory are designed for a 30 year life. This reflects the expected life of the asset before substantive intervention is required but maintenance activities would still be required annually.
“Remote roads in Central Australia are generally designed with floodways rather than culverts as the rain events are short (in most cases) and depths of flow are relatively low.
“Culverts can fail and wash the road away if not maintained and/or have insufficient grade and so – from local experience and value for money assessment – floodways provide a solid pavement for low flows and can be cleared quickly and the road reopened after major rain events.”
Where does the bitumen come from? At what cost, and at what cost for transport?
“The sealing of roads in remote locations is logistically difficult as the plant and materials (aggregate and bitumen) have to be transported to site,” says the department.
“The cost to seal remotely is more expensive and can increase from urban to remote locations by up to 100%.
“Bitumen is imported from either interstate or overseas and the cost fluctuates with petroleum prices. The NT would be sourcing bitumen from the same suppliers as other jurisdictions, as they are only a few importers to Australia.
“Where crew can be sourced locally they will be used. There is not a full sealing crew in Alice Springs so the crew would either come from Darwin or Adelaide.
“The majority of the remote road network in the NT is constructed from local natural gravel sourced within a reasonable distance from the project. Natural gravel resources are finite and so in some cases material has to be modified to be suitable for road building and/or hauled for longer distances which does affect costs.
“Typical costs are $10 to 15 per square meter for non-modified natural gravel pavement placed and compacted.
“Sealing aggregate is a manufactured material sourced from hard rock deposits, and carted to site. In the Alice Springs region, the majority of the aggregate is produced at a quarry on the north side of town.
“There are very few hard rock deposits in the Alice Springs region that can be worked commercially. Typical costs for supply only is about is $40 to $50 per tonne.”
There is a difference in the cost for materials obtained from lease Crown land and Aboriginal land: “On Aboriginal land extractive minerals which form the basis of road making materials are owned by the Land Trusts. Historically Land Trusts have negotiated the acquisition of these materials to support road upgrades throughout the Territory.
“On non-Aboriginal land the Territory as the Crown owns the resources required and does not pay for the resources but provides for compensation to land holders commensurate with the level of impact in obtaining the materials.”
UPDATE 1.10pm Feb 6:
The department says the Plenty Highway is about 500 km long, with a single seal (91 km), double seal (36 km) and unsealed (373 km). A further 20 km of double seal will be undertaken with allocated funding.
The Tjukararu Highway is about 190 km long, with a double seal (12 km) and unsealed (178 km). A further 11 km of double seal will be undertaken with allocated funding.
Who can tender?
The NT procures both design commissions and construction contracts through a competitive open tender process to ensure value for money, says the department.
Are the local governments in Queensland and WA permitted to tender? Are there concessions for NT firms tendering and if so, what are they?
To tender for government works contractors are required to have Contractor Accreditation Limited (CAL) to the appropriate category and financial threshold. As these are joint funded projects with the Australian Government they would also need to have Federal Safety Commissioner Accreditation and comply with the Australian Building and Construction Commission’s Workplace Relations Management Plan requirements.
“The sections in WA and Queensland are already built up and require less work,” the department had said earlier. We asked: All roads yet to be sealed – in Queensland, WA and here – have been formed gravel roads for decades. So which sections have to be “built up”?
The department says it understands that the local government agencies in Queensland and WA have spent decades building up the roads, hence the only real scope of work left is to seal the road, which costs considerably less.
“With 22,000km of road to manage, the department prioritises works on a needs-priority basis. As such, the Outback Way sections that include the Stuart Highway and the Lasseter Highway, both of which have much higher traffic volumes, have been given more attention over the years.
“The Plenty Highway and Tjukaruru Road have received regular grading. However, this grading has now excavated the road to levels where it needs to be rebuilt and drainage reinstated. In some places, the road needs to be built up by a couple of metres worth of material.”
We asked: In the interest of the wider community, would the Central Land Council members be supportive? Recent experience with the “outer” Mereenie Loop road casts doubt on that, as Chamber of Commerce CEO Kay Eade reminded us this month.
The department responded: “The Central Land Council has engaged with the department positively in regards to projects in its region including consultation with traditional owners, identification of areas of significance and access to materials.”
What was the cost for materials obtained from traditional owners for the recently fully sealed Inner Mereenie Loop?
“The rate paid is consistent with all other contracts in the CLC region. The actual agreed price is Commercial in Confidence,” the department replied.