Coastal Roads

Briefing Note Summary

TNQ’s road transport system is under pressure due to population growth, particularly on the coastal road network around Cairns, which is the main distribution hub for the region.

The Bruce Highway is one of Australia’s highest risk roads, and in the 5 years to 2020 there were 604 casualty crashes and 33 fatalities on the stretch between Cairns and Townsville.

When the Captain Cook Highway is flooded, the Cairns Western Arterial Road is the only flood-free access route between Cairns, the Northern Beaches, and the Kennedy Highway.

In the 2021-22 budget, the Federal Government allocated $240M to duplicate the entire length of the Cairns Western Arterial Road. Additionally, the Queensland Government promised $60M for the road in the lead-up to the last election.

The Issue

Identifying pressures along coastal road network

An integrated and efficient road transport network is critical for economic stability and growth in Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) and the coastal road network plays an important part. The main coastal roads for TNQ that require significant upgrading are:

  1. The Bruce Highway A1 (Cairns to Townsville)
  2. The Cairns Ring Road (comprising the Captain Cook Highway and the Cairns Western Arterial Road)

In TNQ, the road network underpins the economy. The road network is vital to the resident population of 256,0391 (with up to 50,000 tourists during peak holiday season) ensuring accessibility to health, education, community services, and trade. Due to sustained population growth, TNQ’s road transport system faces increasing pressure. Meeting the growing demand for freight has strained existing infrastructure, impacting on transport costs and service levels across the supply chain. The strain has been exacerbated by uneven population dispersion, competing road users, and resilience gaps in the road network, which is frequently impacted by weather events. Traffic congestion, safety issues, and a loss of liveability and connectivity are the key issues for these roads.

The Bruce Highway is part of the National Highway A1, providing the vital link between Cairns and Townsville, other Queensland coastal cities, and Brisbane. The highway also supports the transport of freight into and out of the region. Cairns and Townsville are northern Australia’s largest cities, yet the mostly single carriageway highway is inadequate for the population base and is frequently closed due to flooding.

There is significant traffic congestion on the Captain Cook Highway and along the Cairns Western Arterial Road (CWAR), both of which lead from the Northern Beaches into the city. This makes the transport of freight to, from, and between the key port locations difficult. While there is significant potential to expand export activities for the TNQ region, particularly to Asian markets, connectivity between ports is a critical enabling factor in the future development of Cairns as an export and service hub.

Cairns’ population is forecast to grow by 42%2 by 2046, and with its geography highly constrained by World Heritage-listed mountains and rainforest to the west and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to the east, the ability to build new roads is severely limited. Therefore, it is imperative for the future prosperity and liveability of Cairns that both the Bruce Highway and the Cairns Ring Road be upgraded.


The Bruce Highway

Over the past decade, the Bruce Highway has consistently been rated one of Australia’s highest risk roads. In 2016 the highway accounted for 17% of national casualty crashes on only 7.5% of the entire national network. On the 299km section between Cairns and Townsville, which carries an estimated 17,250 vehicles per day, in the five years to 2020 there were 604 casualty crashes and 33 fatalities3. The mostly single carriageway is slow, dangerous, and often closed during flooding.

Cairns Ring Road (Captain Cook Highway section)

The National Highway A1 was extended by the Federal Government in 2020 to the intersection of Captain Cook and Kennedy Highways and Mount Milman Drive, Smithfield, north of Cairns. In 2019, just before this road re-classification, the Federal Government announced it would undertake the majority of funding ($287M of $359M) for road upgrades to Smithfield. The need to upgrade Captain Cook Highway to enhance connectivity was recognised by the Federal Government in its July 2020 release of the 2019 National Land Transport Network (NLTN) Determination Review, and works on the first phase between James Street and Airport Avenue are to begin in late 2021.

Cairns Ring Road (Cairns Western Arterial Road section)

The effectiveness and safety of the road transport network in and around Cairns will continue to be adversely impacted until the CWAR is fully duplicated from Redlynch to Smithfield and major intersections are upgraded.

Cairns Arterial Road Network

The Cairns Arterial Road network has been underfunded for many years in terms of capacity upgrades, with residential and industrial land development outpacing road project investments.

The CWAR is considered a priority infrastructure project as the road is heavily congested on a daily basis. Furthermore, when the Captain Cook Highway is flooded during wet season or natural disaster, the CWAR is the only flood-free access route between Cairns, the Northern Beaches, and the Kennedy Highway.

Upgrading the state-owned Western Arterial section of the Cairns Ring Road, which carries approximately 42,000 vehicles per day2, is essential to connecting Cairns’ freight routes with the region’s premier agriculture producing areas (Atherton Tablelands, Cape York Peninsula, and Mossman), while also meeting demand for daily commuter traffic. At the 2020 State Election, the State Government pledged $60M to the CWAR. In the May 2021-22 budget, the Federal Government committed $240M for the duplication of the remaining single carriageway section of the road. It is now imperative that the State Government commits to the balance of funding and that planning gets underway to ensure the duplication work is undertaken as soon as possible.

Infrastructure Australia has listed both the Bruce Highway and the CWAR on its 2021 list of infrastructure priorities4.

Next Steps

A number of significant investments announced to address safety and efficiency challenges on the TNQ road network must be commenced as soon as possible.

Bruce Highway, Cairns to Townsville

 Develop a strategic transport plan for the Bruce Highway, which links northern Australia’s two largest centres, Cairns and Townsville.

Bruce Highway, Innisfail Bypass

Continue to preserve the existing bypass corridor and continue transport project planning ($9M) with a view to completion by 2024-25.

Bruce Highway, Ingham to Cardwell Range Deviation

Continue to preserve the existing transport corridor and commence transport project planning ($48M) with a view to completion by 2024-25.

Captain Cook Highway

Complete planning for upgrade between Cairns and Smithfield and include $359M (State and Federal) allocated for construction in budget forward estimates for 2022-2025.

Cairns Western Arterial Road

Now that the Federal Government has committed to $240M in the 2021-22 budget, it is imperative that planning for the duplication of the road between Smithfield and Redlynch be completed to enable works to commence as soon as possible.

Our Recommendation

  • That through the Bruce Highway program, the State and Federal Governments honour their promise to upgrade North Queensland sections of the National Highway A1 ($57M) and commit to developing a strategic transport plan linking Cairns and Townsville.
  • That the Federal Government commitment of $287.2M for Captain Cook Highway upgrade and $240M for the CWAR duplication be allocated in forward estimates.


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