A bridge too far?

Responsibility for the ongoing maintenance of the old iron bridge across the Bellinger River at Raleigh may fall to Bellingen Shire Council once the Pacific Highway upgrade is completed.
Responsibility for the ongoing maintenance of the old iron bridge across the Bellinger River at Raleigh may fall to Bellingen Shire Council once the Pacific Highway upgrade is completed.

THE RAPID pace of work on the Nambucca Heads to Urunga Pacific Highway upgrade is a joy to see but there is a flip side.

When the new stretch of highway opens, the Roads and Maritime Service (RMS) will hand the maintenance responsibilities of the old highway within the shire back to the Bellingen Shire Council  ... which will be a major additional cost to the shire’s roads and bridges budget.

Bellingen Shire mayor Mark Troy said negotiations with RMS had begun and discussions were in the early stages.

“There is nothing along the section due to be handed back that is in a decrepit state, however, the ongoing costs of adding the old Pacific Highway to the shire’s road network will not be insignificant,” Cr Troy said.

“We would like to come to a reasonable arrangement that won’t leave local government out of pocket.”

In neighbouring Nambucca Shire, the council last week received news RMS would continue to foot the maintenance bill for the ageing iron coat-hanger bridge at Macksville – an announcement welcomed by mayor Rhonda Hoban.

“We are relieved the Macksville Bridge will remain with the State but negotiations are not over yet – it is a lengthy tedious process and the council has agreed to play a minor role in the maintenance of the bridge’s ‘running surface’,” Cr Hoban said.

She is not however, as pleased about the balance of the possible arrangement, which would see the transfer of responsibility of 30 km of road with 14 bridges or major culvert structures, including concrete spans over Warrell Creek, Newee Creek and Deep Creek.

“We are going to have a major increase in infrastructure maintenance costs, far exceeding the council’s financial capacity,” Cr Hoban said.

She said one of the frustrations of the negotiating process was the RMS had not released reports regarding the condition of the assets – information that would greatly benefit the council.

Cr Troy echoed this concern, saying the current situation where the RMS provided the councils with proposals was not ideal and it would be fairer to have an independent body making the assessments.

“This issue is affecting so many local councils where upgrades are taking place,” he said.

“The Mid North Coast group of councils (MIDROC) has called for the appointment of an independent authority to determine the funding package to be provided by RMS to councils for the maintenance of the old (by-passed) Pacific Highway.

“In Bellingen Shire Council’s case, the transfer of the old highway asset will place significant pressure on council’s tight road maintenance budget.”

And when it comes to the question of bridges, the matter of responsibility for the old Raleigh Bridge has not been determined.

“That bridge has not yet been officially handed back to the council, but like Nambucca, if it is to become our asset, we’d want it handed over in a good state ... clearly not in its current state,” Cr Troy said.