Country roads can be notoriously unreliable and difficult to drive on, but most Australians are unlikely to be as frustrated with their road travel options as families living on the Northern Territory’s unsealed “highways”.
If you thought your local dirt road was hard going, share a thought for those relying on the Sandover and Tanami highways.
Alice Springs branch of the Isolated Children’s Parents Association highlighted the size of the road transport challenge at this year’s federal conference in Canberra with a string of anecdotes to support a plea for more federal funding to provide a safer, all-weather regional road network.
ICPA branch president Amber Driver, from Elkedra Station, 400 kilometres north east of Alice, said it was unacceptable major unsealed roads such as the Sandover Highway were untrafficable after less than 25 millimetres of rain.
More traffic, few funds
Her family relied on the route as for access to and from the station, but its condition was generally deteriorating fast because of unfulfilled upgrade promises and its rising popularity as a transport link running east to Queensland.
Despite relatively few families living along the highway, traffic from mining, cattle transport and community services vehicles had increased significantly in the past decade or so.
A drive from Alice Springs to “Elkedra” involves 300km of dirt road.
In total they travelled more than 1400km in one day to attend an education functionEmma Chalmers, Alice Springs ICPA
Emphasising the effort some families had to go to attend education events via poorly maintained sandy and gravel roads in the Territory, Alice Springs branch delegate Emma Chalmers referred to one family which usually travels 730 kilometres to town – 400km of which is via unsealed roads.
A trip to town with five young children to attend a distance education in-school week in 2016 required a 700km detour in order to get the students to their NAPLAN test and sports events because of rain on a section of their usual route.
“In total they travelled more than 1400km in one day to attend an education function,” Mrs Chalmers said.
In another case, an Alice Springs School of the Air teacher opted to turn around and return home rather than complete a scheduled yearly visit to her students after making half the trip on the rugged Sandover Highway.
“This is the reality our rural and remote families live with all year,” said Mrs Chalmers, whose family’s haulage business deals with impassable and costly road conditions every week.
“We must drive on these on these roads to access in-school events and specialist appointments for children.
“We should not have to weigh up the safety of our major arterial road network each time a child has to travel to see their teacher.”
On a positive note, Mrs Chalmers said the federal and Northern Territory governments were continuing efforts to seal the Outback Way – a 4600km route from Winton in western Queensland to Laverton in southern Western Australia, via the Plenty Highway in NT.
Perth to Cairns sealed road plan
In the past 20 years more than $205m has been committed to sealing the route, with the ultimate goal to have sealed links stretching from Perth in the west, to Cairns in North Queensland, via Uluru and Alice Springs.
Territorian ICPA members told the Canberra conference they were thankful of the Outback Way funding effort which promised to complete the road sealing project by 2025.
However, Central Australian pastoral families and those servicing them also hoped the funding momentum would be maintained to finally seal other dirt highways in NT which provided basic transport access for services, supplies and stock leaving their properties.
The price tag for the ambitious Perth to Cairns project has been projected to be more than $600m.
The conference overwhelmingly supported a motion calling for ICPA to lobby relevant federal ministers about the importance of continually improving the regional and remote road network to standards which enabled safe travel for children and families attending education and related services.
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