A year after Tropical Cyclone Debbie destroyed its access road, the Sarina Range Community Association has called on all levels of government to prioritise its reconstruction.
The state government announced at the end of March that work on the area ripped away in a landslide was not expected to be completed for another nine months.
The news was a blow for impacted residents and businesses who have been experiencing major inconveniences for 12 months to date.
They said the Sarina-Marlborough Road was an integral part of road networks for local businesses, workers, families and residents, not only in the Mackay region, but for the Isaac and Burdekin regions.
Sarina Range Community Association treasurer, Wendy King, said their lives had been changed when the cyclone crossed the Whitsunday coast a year ago.
“The damage has tested us financially, socially and emotionally over the past 365 days and will continue to test the families and residents for many more months to come, until restoration is complete to the road back home,” she said.
She calculated that the Sarina Range community had incurred $904,000 in motor vehicle expenses for the additional commute distance during the 12 month period, increasing to $1.56 million by the expected restoration date of December 2018.
“This does not include the huge costs to other businesses and workers in the Mackay region who would use the Sarina Range to access the mining hinterland and agricultural sectors west of the region,” she said.
These include big business such as Aurizon, Pacific National, and JJ Richards.
They and the many family businesses impacted have been carrying the costs associated with their vehicles, time and wages, delays and the state of the alternative route, the Koumala-Bolingbroke Road and Koumala Range, which is under heavy stress from the increased traffic burden, according to Wendy.
Group president, Jason Mansfield, said the extra commute of the past 12 months had taken a heavy toll not only financially, but emotionally, with fewer family outings, and decreased participation in local events, sporting and cultural activities, as residents tightened their belts to cope with the added financial burden.
“Enough is enough and a road home is not much to ask for,” he said.
‘Road repairs happening as fast as possible’
Reinstating the Sarina Range access road is taking place as quickly as possible, according to a Department of Transport spokesman.
Describing it as a complex reconstruction and stabilisation project, the spokesman said extensive works had been undertaken over the last 12 months, including substantial structural and geotechnical investigations to ensure the road was restored safely and effectively.
Thirteen of the 30 areas requiring repair have now been restored, and 10 other sites are being repaired at the same time as the main slip site, which means the road is not yet safe to open to traffic.
This takes into account the safety of both motorists and roadworkers, and to accelerate reconstruction works.
However, the department is investigating opportunities for some form of limited access for residents as restoration progresses.
Repairs to the state-controlled road network from damage caused by Cyclone Debbie are estimated to cost up to $250 million, with $55.6 million already spent to date.
Transport Minister, Mark Bailey said he was aware communities such as Sarina had suffered.
“Typically, it takes two to three years for the planning, scoping, budget allocation and design phases of a road project,” he said.
“This includes investigating flora and fauna, undertaking geological investigations, undertaking surveying, identifying land tenure, applying for a range of permits and detailed design.
“Only then can tender, contract award, procurement and construction start. In the case of natural disaster repairs, this process is compressed into a six to 12-month period so we can get works underway sooner.”
Work on the Marlborough–Sarina Road has stabilised the upper slope at the main landslip so far, and excavation of the roadway at the main slip site started in April.
The downhill slope treatment will include a large volume of rock fill, soil nailing and a six to eight-metre mass block retaining wall, with work expected to be completed by December 2018.
No edge protection on detour route
The safety of the alternate access road, the Koumala-Bolingbroke Road, coping with increased traffic volume, has been a concern for the Community Association as well.
School students are among the daily commuters travelling the unsealed Koumala Range road with no guard rails in the wet season.
“There are a lot of people that live up here that don't drive four wheel drives, who need to traverse a slippery, unsealed range crossing with no edge protection in a conventional vehicle,” Wendy said.
The commute to work and to access goods and services is by one-way traffic controlled by lights.
Wendy said the department told them it had planned to seal that section of road, but not until June 2018, when the wet season was likely to be finished.
According to the TMR spokesman, several safety upgrades were identified for a detour route after a road safety assessment in April 2017, which included sealing sections of the Koumala-Bolingbroke Road and Koumala Range, widening works, additional signage, grading and maintenance works.
“Implementation of these safety upgrades is in progress, and TMR and Mackay Regional Council closely monitor Koumala-Bolingbroke Road every week,” he said. “In addition, we are committed to working with regular road users to ensure any concerns are addressed and any required maintenance or repair works are identified, and undertaken as soon as possible to ensure the road is safe to use as a detour route.”
In response to concerns from residents that alternate access options to Sarina could become blocked by flooding during the wet season, and what they say has been the lack of a back-up plan, the spokesman said the emergency access arrangements for the Sarina Range were recently reviewed.
“As part of this review, Queensland Ambulance Service and Queensland Police were invited to drive the access track and view the cleared helipad area, to ensure it suited their needs, should an emergency arise.
“While this track is not suited to everyday use, work was done to create a safe gravel road passage for emergency services.
“Both Queensland Ambulance and Queensland Police provided positive feedback. Queensland Fire and Rescue plan to visit the site in April.”
Answering concerns about why the Sarina Range access road landslide occurred in the first place and what guarantees there were that another major rain event wouldn’t see a repeat, the departmental representative said risk mitigation and weather events were considered in all infrastructure design but no guarantee could be provided that any road was able to withstand a natural disaster.
“We will ensure any road closures which occur as a result of a natural disaster are reinstated as soon as it is safe and practicable.”
As far as answering the question of whether additional funding would expedite the completion of the Sarina Range completion, all TMR said was that “the timeframes for repair are set by geological conditions, workplace safety hazards and associated risk mitigation strategies”.
Wendy said she still believed the restoration project could be accelerated by additional funds and resources being thrown at it.