A decision by Queensland's Department of Transport and Main Roads to continue with plans to force cumbersome cane farming vehicles to cross the planned new Walkerston Bypass west of Mackay via a staggered T-intersection has been labelled a short-sighted compromise.
The comment by Canegrowers Mackay chairman Kevin Borg comes after year-long discussions with the department about safety concerns and a suggestion for a farm vehicle underpass were rejected.
As a result, Mr Borg said the staggered T-intersection, which 22 heavy vehicles an hour would be using at peak traffic periods, was "an accident waiting to happen".
"Under TMR's plan, traffic consisting of large, slow moving cane farm vehicles and machinery, and mill mud and dunder trucks, will cross over the Walkerston Bypass Road during morning and afternoon peak periods in both directions," he said.
"These farm vehicles will be travelling at around 40kph to negotiate the crossing. Meanwhile, the rest of the general traffic will be travelling at speeds of about 80kph.
"The farm vehicles will be required to: turn left onto the highway, move over to the right-hand lane in front of traffic, turn right, in front of traffic coming from the opposite direction, move over to the left hand lane in front of traffic, and turn left to exit the highway."
Mr Borg said a safer solution would be to separate the traffic by constructing an overpass for cars, enabling farm vehicles to go under the road.
"In the six-month crushing period alone, an estimated 220 trips per day will use the intersection to cross the bypass, significantly adding to existing traffic volumes during peak periods, slowing traffic considerably and increasing the risk of road accidents significantly.
"In addition, the farm vehicles will be delivering harvested cane to sidings during the crushing season so that they will frequently be fully loaded with cane, further slowing their operation and increasing the hazard for the motorist."
Mr Borg said the problem would not only exist during the crushing season since normal farming operations during the remaining months of the year would require the movement of other farm equipment across the highway including irrigation hard hoses, high rise spray tractors, cane and soybean planters, wheel rakes, rippers, offsets, fertiliser boxes and agricultural chemical applicators.
According to the department, predicted traffic volumes on the bypass are an average of up to 5000 vehicles a day, described as relatively low.
The Bruce Highway, south of Sarina, has similar traffic volumes to those predicted on the bypass, while the Peak Downs Highway, between the Mackay-Eungella Road intersection and City Gates, carried more than 16,000 vehicles per day in 2019.
Farm machinery 'considered safe'
A TMR spokesperson said farm machinery travelling on the Walkerston Bypass was considered safe and consistent with other state-controlled roads around Queensland, including the Bruce Highway.
"An overpass at Bakers Creek was investigated in 2019 and ruled out due to additional cost, environmental constraints, potential flooding impacts and the requirement for further land resumptions," the spokesperson said.
"A staggered T-intersection is the safest way for traffic to cross the Walkerston Bypass as motorists will only be required to cross one lane of traffic before accessing a protected, right-turn lane.
"This all-weather solution will limit the amount of time farming vehicles are required to be on the Walkerston Bypass."
Mr Borg said he found it astounding that the transport department put costs before the safety of the public and local farmers.
An independent investigation of the TMR design, undertaken by consulting engineers on behalf of affected growers, showed that the increased volume of farm traffic during the June-December sugarcane harvesting season had failed to be taken into full consideration.
"During the crushing season every year, the industry traffic will be constant," Mr Borg said. "It won't be one lone truck turning right but potentially two or three haul-outs at a time undertaking a number of trips back and forth per day."
As far as the department's comments that an underpass had been ruled out due to "additional cost, environmental constraints, potential flooding impacts and the requirement for further land resumptions", Mr Borg said the construction of the whole project has already seen those apparently already overcome.
"TMR can put up objections all day but a competent engineer can get around the considerations raised economically, as has indeed been the case put by the consultant engineer."
He said the decision to construct a staggered crossing not only increased the risk of road accidents for motorists but defeated the purpose of the Walkerston Bypass road itself in improving the efficient movement of traffic.
"Ultimately, this will cost taxpayers a lot more when an outraged public demands that the problem be fixed after the inevitable near misses, accidents and, God forbid, fatalities," Mr Borg said. "TMR's lack of concern about the safety of motorists as a priority in building the bypass is very worrying."