Inland Roads

Briefing Note Summary

The Savannah Way stretches for 3700km and is considered one of the top 10 Great Australian Drives, linking Cairns in Tropical North Queensland to Broome in Western Australia’s Kimberley, and delivering $69.8m into the Gulf region annually in drive tourism.

Segments of the Queensland section of the Savannah Way are unsealed and flood prone, isolating communities during the wet season and limiting the economic value of this northern road link.

The Kennedy Developmental Road is a key strategic link from northern Australia to the southern freight hubs of Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.

To realise the benefits of a fully sealed inland road between Cairns and Melbourne, it is critical that funding be provided to complete the remaining 11km of the Kennedy Developmental Road and complete a heavy vehicle safety upgrade at White Cliffs.

The Issue

Priority road infrastructure for TNQ

The inland roads of Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) are vital to enhancing the productivity of northern Australia, while contributing to the national economy through providing improved connectivity to southern markets1. With the growth in population, employment, tourism, and freight volumes, the safety and capacity issues on these roads will only be exacerbated, resulting in nationally significant productivity losses. It is for these reasons the Gulf Developmental Road (Savannah Way Gulf Section) and the Kennedy Developmental Road were highlighted as priority roads in the Infrastructure Australia Priority list for 20212.

The Savannah Way traverses northern Australia, linking Cairns in TNQ to Broome in Western Australia’s Kimberley. The route is approximately 3700km long, crossing 15 national parks and five World Heritage areas as it traverses across the Top End.

Considered to be in the top 10 road trips of Australia, the self-drive tourism market delivers $69.8m annually into the Gulf region3, with 38% of visitors starting the journey in Cairns.

The Gulf section of the Savannah Way (Gulf Developmental Road) takes in 888km from Forty Mile Scrub west of Mt Garnet to the Northern Territory border, with significant sections of the road already sealed. However, there are many substantial sections that require pavement upgrades, bitumen seal, minor realignment of substandard curves, concrete causeways, and four major river crossing upgrades.

The Kennedy Developmental Road is a key strategic link from northern Australia to the southern freight hubs of Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. However, for many years sections of the road remained unsealed, causing safety issues for the locals, tourists, and transport companies that regularly used the road.

To address these concerns, in 2017 under the $600m Northern Australia Roads Program, the Federal and State Governments provided $53.3m to complete 42km of sealing of the Kennedy Developmental Road between the Lynd and Hughenden, and a 3.4km section of road widening and sealing between Mount Garnet and the Lynd. A further $50m was secured in 2018 to complete the remaining 48km of the Kennedy Developmental Road. However, with funding fully allocated and current work scheduled for completion in December 2023, there will still be 11km of the highway yet to be sealed when the current project comes to a close. Additional funding support to seal the remaining 11km on the Kennedy Developmental Road as well as a safety upgrade at White Cliffs would accelerate this project to timely completion and finalise an important link for tourism, horticulture, freight, and cattle movement through Queensland’s north and north-west region. This would reduce the cost of transporting cattle which, at times, can cost a third of their final value to transport to market.

The completed highway will be of tremendous economic benefit to the entire Cairns region, providing a direct transport corridor for banana and other fruit growers and primary producers to freight goods from TNQ to southern markets faster and more reliably than the existing Bruce Highway route.


Savannah Way (Gulf Section)

In recognising the need to seal the Gulf section of the Savannah Way, in 2019 the Federal and State Governments committed $62.5m for road upgrades through the Roads of Strategic Importance – next priorities initiative, along with an additional $31.6m in the March 2022 Federal Budget. This will be spent across various shire councils, with a prioritised list formulated in 2021. Garnet to Carpentaria Shire border section is 510.5km and requires funding to upgrade the road and floodways for reliability and to meet current construction and safety standards for heavy vehicles, tourists, and commuters. Burke Shire to the Northern Territory border is approximately 302km long with less than 50% of the road sealed.

Kennedy Developmental Road

Sealing the road in its entirety is a priority project as it will reduce costs and increase safety for all road users travelling from TNQ to southern parts of Australia. A fully sealed highway would provide a year-round, all-weather route to southern markets for agricultural produce and livestock.

With an expanding population base and rapid growth in agricultural production, the importance of the route for economic, tourism, and critical connection has increased in recent years. Completion of the road sealing would:

  1. Ensure an alternate supply route to TNQ – vital when the Bruce Highway traffic is disrupted due to extreme weather events.
  2. Reduce the cost of transport to market from TNQ, supporting the sustainability of primary production in northern Australia. Using this inland alternative, the distance between Cairns and Melbourne is reduced by 800km, saving 8-10 hours in travel time.
  3. Provide the opportunity for economic development and growth in agriculture (including irrigation), mining, tourism, and freight along with a multitude of employment, lifestyle, and social benefits that will follow.
  4. Enhance Queensland’s road infrastructure, demonstrating the integrated capacity as a catalyst for development in northern Australia.
  5. Enhance supply chains in time of need, providing sovereign capability. Over the course of the Kennedy Developmental Road upgrade, it has been estimated that 130 jobs were created, including Indigenous employment, with more than 100km of highway being sealed.

Next Steps

Savannah Way (Gulf Section)

Upgrading the remaining sections is estimated to require at least $39.8m annually over 10 years (including the $94.1m already committed). Completing the project over 10 years with annual investments to local councils will allow for incremental improvements on this road and ensure the retention of a local roads workforce. The estimated investment breakdown over 10 years for each local shire is as follows:

  • Burke Shire to NT Border – ~$64m

  • Carpentaria Shire – ~$185m

  • Croydon Shire – ~$78m

  • Etheridge Shire – ~$71m

The project will extend across north-west Queensland, travelling along the Gulf of Carpentaria from Forty Mile Scrub to the Northern Territory border, passing through remote towns including Croydon, Burketown, and Doomadgee in Queensland and connecting to Wollogorang in the Northern Territory.

Kennedy Developmental Road

In the most recent round of government funding of $50m under the Roads of Strategic Importance Program, 48km of unsealed road between the Lynd and Hughenden are being sealed by the Flinders and Etheridge Shire Councils. This funding has been fully allocated and work is scheduled for completion in December 2023. However, the final 11km section of unsealed road on the Kennedy Developmental Road will not be covered under the current funding agreement. Sealing the remaining section as well as the White Cliffs realignment is expected to cost $25m.

Our Recommendation

  • That the Federal and State Governments support the sealing and improved flood resilience of the Gulf section of the Savannah Way by providing project funding, and that allocation of funds be distributed to the controlling Local Government Authorities in equal portions over a 10-year period from 2023-24 onwards.

  • That the Federal Government provides $25m to seal the final 11km of the Kennedy Developmental Road and complete the White Cliffs realignment to ensure this key strategic route between Cairns and southern freight hubs is sealed in its entirety.




3. Keirle, P, (2018) Gulf Savannah Way Tourism Survey Report, Gulf Savannah Development