Muswellbrook Shire Council is demanding answers from the State Government over a lack of progress to planning for a Muswellbrook bypass of the New England Highway.
In early 2015, Michael Johnsen told the Muswellbrook community that the State Government’s $68M commitment to a Muswellbrook Bypass was for “actual construction”. When questioned how $68M could deliver a $250M project, the then Roads Minister, Duncan Gay noted:
“When we put this money in place and if [the Federal Government is] not ready it may mean that our money is used to start the project and their money maybe used to finish the project. It is dependent on us winning government.”
Michael Johnsen told the Muswellbrook Chronicle that he would work to deliver the bypass:
“This is non-negotiable – no ifs, no buts, no maybes… If elected on March 28, my first point of call will be the minister’s doorstep, fighting to ensure this important piece of infrastructure is delivered.”
On 3 November 2015, the RMS told the Muswellbrook community that:
“It was aiming to have [the] environmental assessment [for the Muswellbrook Bypass] done in 2016/17”. It also told the Muswellbrook community that it hoped “to have a new concept design available for public comment in around six months”. The RMS also told the Muswellbrook Community that if there was any slippage in the timetable it would let the community know and consult deeply with the Muswellbrook Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the wider community – including council.
In July 2016, Council met with the RMS who indicated that construction was “not going to occur in four years but maybe five years” – rebuffing the State Government’s earlier commitment that it would commence construction “within 4 years”. It also noted (now some three months after it first indicated it intended to have a completed environmental assessment) that it had failed to do so.
The RMS further noted that it envisaged consultation with council about a “concept design” in October 2016 and that community consultation around the environmental assessment would now take place in June 2017 (almost 18 months after it first told the community that it hoped to have it completed). The RMS reiterated it would keep Council informed about developments – and particularly if there was any slippage. The RMS committed to show Council a copy of a break up of how the $3.2M allocated in the 2016/17 State Budget was being spent (meeting minutes attached).
Today the RMS has confirmed they have “nothing to present”, could give no explanation as to why the October 2016 consultation did not occur and confirmed that the environmental assessment would not be completed by June 2017. The RMS could offer no explanation as to why it did not keep the business community, Council and the wider community informed of the slippage in delivering the environmental assessment, offered no apology for not doing so, and declined to give a date as to when the environmental assessment would be completed for community consultation.
Unless the environmental assessment is completed by the end of 2018, there is a very real prospect that the bypass will miss a critical window for the next round of federal funding.
In relation to the news, Muswellbrook Mayor, Martin Rush said:
“The State Government will no doubt shortly issue a release telling the community that everything is going to plan but the truth is the Bypass project is now hopelessly delayed.
“The RMS refuses to produce any evidence that it has actually done any work in the two years since the State election. Michael Johnsen’s silence is deafening. The State Government refuses to provide a timeframe as to how it will get the work done by the start of 2019. It continues to treat the Muswellbrook Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Council and the wider community with utter contempt by refusing to keep them informed of where the project is actually up to. I cannot imagine that consultation could get any worse.
“Something has clearly gone wrong behind the scenes. It’s time the RMS and the State Government came clean with the community and told us once and for all what its timetable is, provide clear and unequivocal consultation points concerning its progress and undertake to treat future community consultation with considerably more respect.”