Pacific Hwy opening brings Clarence 'closer to the world'
WELL, it's finally here.
From tomorrow drivers will be able to cruise along the new 36 kilometre stretch of the Pacific Highway from Glenugie to Tyndale, bypassing the towns of Grafton, Ulmarra and Tyndale, beginning a new chapter in the Clarence Valley region's history.
At a special event to mark the occasion, Federal member for Page Kevin Hogan highlighted the significance of the project in reducing the road toll, on a stretch of highway with a notorious history.
Mr Hogan referenced the 1989 Cowper bus crash tragedy which claimed the lives of 21 people and said the safety of community members was a primary motivation.
"Already on the highway where it has been dual-duplicated we have seen a massive reduction in fatalities," he said.
"That has always been the focus and has always been why this highway was built."
It is the longest stretch of the $5 billion Woolgoolga to Ballina upgrade opened to date and, in addition to slashing drive times by more than 12 minutes, Mr Hogan said it was the moment the Clarence Valley became "closer to the rest of the world".
"We are closer now to bigger populations which is going to be good for business and tourism and in a post-COVID world this could not happen at a better time," he said.
"Our manufacturers and our primary producers are going to be closer to markets and that's good for our economy."
While there have been some concerns about the impact on bypassed towns like Ulmarra, Tyndale and Grafton, Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis said it was a "fantastic" occasion which presented an opportunity for a new direction. He said the upgrade meant towns like Ulmarra would no longer be subjected to the high traffic volumes.
"I don't think there will be a downturn in economic activity at all," Mr Gulaptis said.
"I think those towns can actually renew and revitalise themselves and have a different direction.
"A place like Ulmarra had so much traffic running through the town it wasn't a pleasant place for visitors to come and stop, but now it will be. It will be a destination."
However, for Sandy Munro who operates The Little Local cafe in Ulmarra, the benefits were less clear as she contemplated how the new highway might affect her business.
On the eve of the opening Ms Munro said the bypass represented "the great unknown", especially as it came during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Originally before COVID I wasn't too worried because there was always going to be travellers, particularly grey nomads and weekend bike groups," she said. "But now it is just a complete unknown."
Though Ms Munro was hopeful that with lockdowns easing people might be more willing to get out and about.
"In the first few weeks it was a ghost town but Saturday when everyone was allowed out, it was one of the busiest Saturdays we have had outside holiday period."
While the exact timing of the opening later today is unknown, electronic message signs will provide information for motorists.