Priorities on the Pacific Highway

Roads & Infrastructure talks to Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack about the Federal Government’s project priorities and collaborating with state governments.

The Ride Levett Bucknall 2018 Crane Index examined the masses of cranes dotting skylines in Australian capital cities.

According to the index, 735 long-term cranes stood tall at the time of writing, a seven per cent increase from six months prior.

Stephen Mee, RLB Global Chairman, credits the increase with high-performance rates in the infrastructure sector.

Michael McCormack, Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Infrastructure Minister, expressed similar sentiments when he spoke to Roads & Infrastructure.

Mr. McCormack cites the number of cranes lifting across the country as evidence of an ever-accelerating infrastructure boom.

“If you go to Sydney or Melbourne, you can actually see it for yourself, they are everywhere,” Mr. McCormack says.

Earlier this year, the Federal Government allocated $100 billion to infrastructure projects – to be rolled out over the next 10 years.

According to Mr. McCormack, the Coalition’s infrastructure agenda is designed to help manage Australia’s growing population, meet the national freight challenge and improve road safety.

Key programs include the $4 billion Urban Congestion Fund, the $44 million Inland Rail Interface Improvement Program and the $1.1 billion Roads to Recovery Program.

The pipeline

Mr. McCormack credits his government’s ability to discuss and action large-scale infrastructure projects such as the Inland Rail, through to individual roundabouts and intersections, as playing a critical role in their recent re-election.

“People looked at what we were doing, not just what we were saying,” Mr. McCormack says.

“They saw the bulldozers. They saw the excavators. They saw the high-vis and they said, ‘this government is actually getting things done to benefit communities’.”

Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 Infrastructure Priority statement argues that governments need to invest in transformational technology, forward planning and strategic investment to mitigate the pressure population growth is placing on infrastructure networks.

Federal infrastructure policy is working on several fronts to plan liveable cities, develop infrastructure decision-making principals and facilitate corridor protection within the funding pipeline.

Initiatives include engagement with community during planning processes, greater decision-making transparency and investment in development studies.

Raised on family farms in Marrar and Brucedale in regional New South Wales, Mr. McCormack was elected The Nationals’ Member for Riverina in 2010.

Serving multiple roles as the Deputy Prime Minister, Nationals Party Leader and Federal Infrastructure Minister, Mr. McCormack takes a holistic approach to infrastructure spending, one he says is informed by his background living and working in regional Australia.

According to Mr. McCormack, his experience gives him the capacity to better understand the needs and wants of the eight million Australians living outside a capital city.

“I think we (the Federal Government) have had a very balanced approach to infrastructure, and I think having myself, coming from a regional background, in the senior portfolio role has obviously helped regional infrastructure priorities,” Mr. McCormack says.

He also says developing a balance between the needs and wants of the cities, and those of regional Australia, is a core principal of his government.

He notes the importance of collaborating with the government’s separate Cities and Urban Infrastructure portfolio, occupied by Alan Tudge.

“This government has put a significant amount of money on the table for urban infrastructure,” Mr. McCormack says.

“We are committed to making sure people don’t have to spend hours and hours looking at break lights just to get to and from work, which is why I will be working very closely with Alan Tudge over the coming years.”

Mr. McCormack estimates the cost of congestion in Australia’s capital cities at $24 billion per year, projected to reach $40 billion by 2030.

Congestion is largely attributed to a pairing of population growth and a slow project development process, which has stopped the transport network from growing with cities.

“We want to make sure people get home sooner and safe, which is a matter of talking to individual ministers,” Mr. McCormack says.

“I recently spoke with Andrew Constance in New South Wales to see what we could do to help increase traffic flows, not just in the middle of Sydney, but also in the Western Suburbs.”

Key government projects for Australia’s cities include the $500 million M1 upgrade in Queensland, the $1.14 billion Melbourne suburban roads upgrade and $2 billion Melbourne to Geelong fast rail.

Priority projects

Although Mr. McCormack’s role as Infrastructure Minister requires him to approach the network as a whole, he does have a few personal passion projects.

“I don’t want to finish my political career without being able to point to some major projects and say, that happened in my time,” Mr. McCormack says.

“I’d really like to see the Pacific Highway finished and I’ve made that commitment – the work the government has already done on the highway has saved a significant amount of lives.”

The Pacific Highway Upgrade is one of the largest road infrastructure projects in Australia, and involves improvement works such as lane widening, dual carriageway construction and paving.

Federal Government estimates show fatal crashes have halved since works began, down from 40 each year to 20 in recent years.    

The 2019-20 federal budget allocated $1.6 billion to the Pacific Motorway Extension in New South Wales and $500 million to the Pacific Motorway Upgrade Program in Queensland.

“There’s a renewed emphasis on the Pacific Highway, as there should be. It’s a huge stretch of road going through several states and we need to emphasise the worst black spot areas to make sure we get that work done.”

Building better water storage infrastructure is another priority for Mr. McCormack.

He says he plans to dedicate a lot of his short-term effort to projects like the $10 million Lakeland water storage project, which aims to establish a large-scale water storage facility in Far North Queensland.

“More water storage and dam projects need to get happening as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. McCormack says.

The Inland Rail is another favourite of the Deputy Prime Minister, one he calls “massive” and “nation building”.

Once complete, the Inland Rail will create a direct rail freight connection between Melbourne and Brisbane that is capable of moving double stacked freight containers.

The project aims to remove freight trucks from roads and open regional communities up to investment and export trade.

“The project has the potential to cut freight costs by an average of $76 per tonne. Given the business case was predicated on a $10 saving per tonne – I mean that’s massive,” Mr. McCormack says.

“A lot of local businesses are benefiting from the work on the Inland Rail – I like to call it a 17-hundred-kilometre corridor of commerce.”

Mr. McCormack says he was recently discussing infrastructure priorities in Queensland, with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Transport Minister
Mark Bailey.

He says the three spoke about the infrastructure needs of the state, notably the Inland Rail.

According to Mr. McCormack, the project highlights the benefits of state and federal collaboration. He says two out of the three effected governments have already signed off on the intergovernmental agreement, enabling construction to begin.

Collaborating with the States

Mr. McCormack says he is always excited and willing to speak with state and territory governments, no matter their political persuasion.

“I recently met with Premier Gladys Berejiklian in New South Wales, I’ve meet with Jacinta Allan in Victoria and Stephan Knoll in South Australia,” Mr. McCormack says.

“I don’t want to just be a part of the Transport Infrastructure Council, I want to meet all the infrastructure ministers face to face and talk about what their priorities are.”

Mr. McCormack says interstate collaboration allows all governments to meet somewhere in the middle, and leads to an acceleration of both regional and urban projects.

While the Pacific Highway, Lakeland water storage plan and Inland Rail are Mr. McCormack’s legacy projects, he says it’s not just history making infrastructure that’s important.

“I was in Emerald Queensland recently, and quite a number of people came up to me at the Emerald show,” Mr. McCormack says.

“They were really impressed with the fact our government was actually getting to work on the Springsure Tambo Road project.”

Work on Springsure Tambo Road involves extensive sealing, and is estimated to cut eight hours off the round trip from Tambo to Springsure in Queensland’s Central Highlands.

“It’s little things like that which make a huge difference for people,” Mr. McCormack says.

Mr. McCormack also notes the Newell Highway in New South Wales, saying constructing byways is particularly important to keeping the country moving.

Looking to the future

Aside from physical road upgrades and congestion busting public transport developments, the government is also invested in supporting research into road technology and innovation.

Mr. McCormack says the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) in particular is undertaking cutting-edge research that highlights what governments across the country should invest in.

“ARRB is working to design better structures and make sure the roads Australian’s drive on conform to the right, and best, international standards,” Mr. McCormack says.

“They take crumbling sections out of, in some cases, brand new roads. Roads that were laid only months earlier and are already showing signs of wear and tear. ARRB studies the section and tries to work out what went wrong.”

After attending the opening of ARRB’s new lab and office in 2018, Mr. McCormack says he hopes to spend more time looking into research and innovation.

“I’ll be looking into what we, as a government, can learn from the researchers at ARRB and other places – ensuring the work is being properly utilised across the country.

This article was published in the July edition of Roads & Infrastructure.

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