Before the state election tunnels were promised. Now the ‘back pedal’ begins

In the recent state election the National Party candidate, Gurmesh Singh, promised tunnels for the bypass.

By Rod McKelvey

As a result of overwhelming community support for a three-tunnels Bypass and a complete rejection of the cuttings option touted by the previous  Roads Minister, Melinda Pavey, and RMS, both Gurmesh Singh and Andrew Fraser reversed their previous support for the cuttings, and just before the NSW election  unequivocally promised tunnels. There were no ifs or buts. Tunnels it was to be.

Gurmesh Singh, John Barilaro and Andrew Fraser announcing support for bypass tunnels at the recent state election

Kevin Hogan is also busy assuring Page there are tunnels for Coffs Harbour. Federal National candidate Patrick Conaghan for Cowper said on the 26th of April, that the Bypass will have tunnels: “The funding is there, it is guaranteed, and there are tunnels”. Once again, an assurance that the funding is there for a better Coffs Harbour Bypass than the one previously offered by the RMS and Melinda Pavey.

National Party candidate Kevin Page’s recent flyer for the federal election

However, on April 26, Michael McCormack, the federal Nationals leader and Deputy PM, was very coy indeed and was non-committal, choosing instead to revert back to talking about waiting for advice from the NSW Government.

What’s going on? We’ve been promised tunnels, no ifs or buts? So we can only assume the RMS is driving a no-tunnel outcome. Now Luke Hartsuyker has been on the news (May 6), earnestly saying “there will be tunnels”.

Mr McCormack’s recent statements in Coffs Harbour seemed to amount to a ‘back pedal’. Has ScoMo been asked to ‘sort things’?

Talk about confusing  No wonder we’re confused and frustrated, look at their message!

Something ‘fishy’ is going on says Rod McKelvey

But back to Michael McCormack’s waiting for advice. Let’s have a look at what that advice might be, because the Community Consultative Committee (CCC) has turned out to be the election ploy we expected. The purpose of the CCC (as described in the NSW Government general information leaflet promoting the CCC was “to provide a forum for discussion between Roads and Maritime and representatives of the Coffs Harbour community” …more specifically… “to promote information sharing between Roads and Maritime (RMS) and the Coffs Harbour Community”.

Despite this commitment, it seems they’re doing anything but honouring it, and on the contrary, it seems the last thing the RMS wants to do is share any information at all. The CCC only met for the first time Tuesday, April 30, and the RMS stated there that it would not be seeking any input on design whatsoever from the community, and they had nothing to share, so the CCC would not meet again until after the EIS is released, in late July.

Coffs Harbour has been duped by the NSW Nationals and Liberals. The former Minister, Melinda Pavey, slapped a ‘Cabinet in Confidence label’ on all Coffs Bypass data and communications, (a public infrastructure project, mind you). We’ve chosen  to seek our own expert advice from real and experienced road engineers, so finally we have some insight into what’s going on.

In 2008 the internationally-recognised Australian engineering and consulting group, Connell Wagner, produced the “Coffs Harbour Concept Design Report” for the NSW Government. That document contained two concepts for the difficult job of negotiating the unique terrain confronting the RTA … because this is where the mountains meet the sea. One concept featured cuttings, the other featured tunnels.

The latter, clearly favoured by the authors, offered many benefits for the very challenging Coffs Harbour Bypass.  Tunnels offered a much lower road elevation (approximately 22 metres) required to minimise the noise issues for the surrounding community. Connell Wagner said:  

“With the provision of tunnels it would be possible to substantially lower the proposed vertical alignment in that vicinity, allowing the Bypass to be lowered more sympathetically into the existing terrain either side of the major ridgelines, with consequent aesthetic and acoustic benefits”.

The tunnel concept was costed at just $100 million dollars more than the inferior cuttings concept.

The Government also obviously favoured the tunnels concept, because three tunnels featured in the NSW Government State Significant Infrastructure application report (SSI) of May 2015 and 2016.  We know it was around June 2018 that the design was changed, deleting the tunnels. This was found through a direct enquiry about the Bypass EIS to NSW Planning & Environment, dated 17 December, 2018.

Some project investigative work was undertaken, test drilling and some land acquisition, but not much more was heard publicly about the Bypass. We believe that behind the scenes, things were just ticking over until it became known long-standing National Party MPs, Andrew Fraser and Luke Hartsuyker, would retire at the upcoming elections.

The NSW Government and the National Party knew they needed a vote-winner to hold the State seat of Coffs Harbour and the Federal seat of Cowper, so a rushed decision was made to fast-track the Coffs Harbour Bypass, which they would have believed to be a sure-fire thing  after 30-something years of waiting.

Somebody took a guess and threw $1.2 billion on the table. We say a guess, because the figure was arrived at without any design, engineering research, nor consideration of the significant agricultural, environmental, and Aboriginal heritage constraints.  With great fanfare and lots of smiling politicians, the big announcement was made on site in May 2018. The same plan we’d repeatedly seen for years was shown that day with three identifiable ‘possible tunnels’. None of those present would commit either way when asked about tunnels. The challenge was on for the RMS to come up with something.

Subsequently, a very rushed, secretive and amateurish ‘preferred concept design’ was released to the public in September 2018. To the community’s horror, we were confronted by our worst nightmare. The preferred concept featured huge, gaping, 65-metre-deep cuttings about 350m wide with a higher gradeline, which completely ignored and threw out the window all the positives highlighted by Connell Wagner in regards to their lower tunnel concept.

There was uproar in the community, supported by Council who, by the way, has also been denied access in every attempt to get data on traffic, dangerous goods or noise impacts from RMS. Some 800-900 submissions were submitted after an extended consultation period back in November 2018. To date, i.e. six months later, there has been no response whatsoever to these submissions, not even a letter acknowledging how they will be dealt with. At last week’s CCC, community members were told that there would be no response to them, and the only reference to submissions would be made in the EIS itself.

Where are we now? During the NSW election, the Nationals campaigned heavily on tunnels, enough to win them the seat of Coffs Harbour.  We have a CCC which is a toothless tiger, as RMS has shut up shop and is still refusing to deal respectfully with the community of Coffs Harbour. The CCC has taken the heat off the RMS, which now has breathing space to do whatever it likes, in secret. The CCC was heavily promoted by Gurmesh Singh and Andrew Fraser, our new and former State MPs.

The EIS is supposed to come out early July, yet at the one and only CCC Meeting, members were told the RMS has nothing for them to see or to discuss. That’s extraordinary, since a publication such as an EIS needs to be informed by a concept design at least completed to 80%, with numerous reports (many of which obviously exist despite denials) that were completed during 2018.

An EIS would also require about 8 weeks of art, edit and print production time, so work back from early July to see just how ludicrous it is for the RMS to say it has nothing to show the CCC. We may live in regional NSW, but we’re not ignorant hillbillies. We’ve got professionals here with experience and knowledge any city would be proud to claim.

What’s going on? Any argument put forward that tunnels are much more expensive than cuttings can easily be dispelled. Connell Wagner, with all their expertise and knowledge, said tunnels would be just $100 million more than the cuttings model. When former Roads Minister Pavey said that the Coffs Harbour Bypass would cost $1.2 billion, there was no concept design, no reports, and no property acquisitions.

There was nothing. RMS were told “Here is $1.2 billion, do what you can with it”, and they came up with the cuttings design. The question is, was $1.2 billion ever enough to start with, especially when dealing with difficult terrain and complex issues? Our expert advice is it wasn’t enough, even for cuttings. Using algorithms designed specifically for road infrastructure projects, the popular estimate is around $1.4 billion.

Judging by past experience, we believe we’ll be hearing lots more about how much tunnels cost, how much maintenance is. However, our experts advise nothing has changed from what Connell Wagner said in 2008, the relative difference between tunnels and cuttings still being only $100 million more than a properly-costed cuttings concept.

Therefore, any attempt to exaggerate the price of tunnels would only happen if someone is unnecessarily exaggerating to suit themselves or cover someone else’s backside.

So what now? The only avenue left is the ballot box. Coffs Harbour voters in Cowper and Page,  you need to think carefully about who you trust to build the right Bypass –  one with a lower gradeline, 3 proper tunnels, and one that will  “be lowered more sympathetically into the existing terrain either side of the major ridgelines, with consequent aesthetic and acoustic benefits”.

We need to ask ourselves why we’d support the National Party again when they abandoned the community they represent and went with the party line. Not a word, not a hint of what we were going to have to deal with, a Bypass clumsily designed to an ill-conceived plucked- from-the-air budget, that according to the our experts, wouldn’t even be enough to cover the cost of that abomination tabled last September as the Preferred Option.

Enough is enough. Our former National Party Representatives knew what the Community’s expectations and aspirations were, and they chose not to say anything when they were told about the planned radical changes to the Coffs Bypass. They both chose to go along with the party line to keep the plans secret for a Bypass that will severely impact virtually everyone living in West Coffs and the amphitheatre that is the city centre. The preferred concept is just not suitable for the topography.


At least with an independent (of this calibre and experience), we’ll have a Cowper representative who cares about the community he serves, a representative who will roll his sleeves up and get in and fight for what we want, because what we want is right for the thousands of people who will otherwise be severely impacted by a Bypass if the preferred concept is built.

The National Party doesn’t deserve the Community’s trust anymore, because both State and Federal deserted us when we needed them. They both knew what was coming and chose to say nothing. It’s time to try something new.

There are myriads of other reasons to try something different, but this Opinion Piece is about our Bypass and how our political representatives deserted us for their party.

Let’s do this! When #AusVotes2019 think #Independents Day #CowperVotes #RobOakeshott

See another recent Outlook story about the bypass and the election here: https://coffscoastoutlook.com.au/%ef%bb%bfthe-election-and-the-by-pass-conversations-scuttlebutt-and-more-questions/

Rod McKelvey was a Councillor and Deputy Mayor in Coffs Harbour. Rod is currently Chair of the Enterprise and Training Company Ltd. (ETC), Chair, Coffs Coast Regional Park Trust Board, Member Woolgoolga Surf Life Saving Rebuilding Committee.


  1. It does sound as if any communication between the Coffs Harbour Bypass Community Consultative Committee will be in one direction only and that makes a mockery of the term “consultative”.

    In the words of our former Member for Coffs Barbour, Andrew Fraser, the handling of this issue by our State Government has been “appalling” and it continues to be so. I have pondered the role and motives of the National Party in this. I have wavered from elaborate conspiracies with an appalling design released at the beginning of the election, to be rescued by the local candidate complete with “extra funds” (well that worked well if it was), through simple ineptitude and bumbling through (much as Rod proposes above) and onto my latest idea that the State is hoping, if they stuff it up enough, then the Feds will pick up 100% of the tab if the Coalition wins on May 18 or 100% of the blame if there is a Shorten Labor government (who, in turn says, “we can’t afford tunnels” because the former government left insufficient funds.)

    Whatever the history, I have always believed that it is all about the money. The government of the day instructs the RMS to satisfy as many people as possible with the cheapest option. Backers of the major parties are rewarded with contracts and individuals who are well-connected do well while everyone else, including the environment, does not.

    This is what is occurring in the Murray Darling with water buy backs that have been made by both sides of politics. Standard tactics is to blame the other mob as they move on to their next lucrative reward. Can you imagine where Barnaby might pop up as “consultant” if he is beaten at the poll on May 18?

    Meanwhile, back in Coffs Harbour we will forget what anyone promised before the elections and opt for anything that relieves the end-to-end traffic that will be the reality when the most populous electorate in the country is the only one between Sydney and Brisbane without a bypass.

    To prevent this we need to vote for integrity and vision in our parliament, two elements that have, for too long, been missing.

  2. Frank Kinninmont

    With a costing of $1.2 to $1.4 Billion placed on the preferred Bypass being 14km. I cannot find any costing done by the RMS on a Far Western Bypass, Englands Road to Halfway Creek approx. 50km.

    Can only find the reason for not building a Far Western Bypass in 2016 RMS Report, 2.3.2 Corridor Identification and Selection, but no costings mentioned.

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