Northern Beaches Roads

Briefing Note Summary

Continued population growth in Cairns’ northern beaches and under-investment in road upgrades have led to daily travel gridlock.

In 2019 the Federal Government committed $287m towards upgrading the Captain Cook Hwy and in 2020 extended the National Highway A1 from south of Cairns CBD to Smithfield.

In the 2021-22 budget, the Federal Government allocated $240m to duplicate the balance of Cairns Western Arterial Road (CWAR).

The Queensland Government has committed its funding share of $72m for Captain Cook Hwy and $60m for CWAR.

Almost four years since the first funding commitment, planning is still being undertaken with no major works having taken place.

The Issue

Identifying pressures along Northern Beaches roads

An integrated and efficient road transport network is critical for economic stability and growth in Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) and the Cairns northern beaches road network plays an important part.

The road network provides vital access to the region’s resident population of more than 281,0001 (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 – which is particularly evident on Cairns’ northern beaches. Meeting the growing demand for freight has strained existing infrastructure, impacting on transport costs and service levels across the supply chain.

Construction of a Cairns Ring Road has long been sought after to provide a safer and more effective transport route.

There is significant traffic congestion on the Captain Cook Highway and along the Cairns Western Arterial Road (CWAR), the only two access roads 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.

When the Captain Cook Highway is flooded, CWAR is the only flood-free access route between Cairns, the northern beaches and the Kennedy Highway.

Cairns’ population is forecast to grow 42% 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 CWAR and Captain Cook Hwy sections of the Cairns Ring Road be upgraded.


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.

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 Cairns Western Arterial Road is fully duplicated from Redlynch to Smithfield as well as major intersections being upgraded. Federal funding of $240m plus $60m from the State Government have been committed to duplicate from the Barron River north.

In January 2023 the Department of Transport and Main Roads released a preliminary master plan for the Captain Cook Hwy outlining some of the proposed upgrades of stage 1 of the $359m project and seeking public comment. DTMR announced the master planning would be complete by mid to late 2023.

Although some early works on the project will start in 2023, the State Government announced the Captain Cook Hwy upgrade was a 25-year project.

The Cairns Western Arterial Road 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, it 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 Western Arterial Road. 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 for the duplication work is completed as soon as possible.

Next Steps

A number of significant investments previously announced to address safety and efficiency challenges on the Cairns northern beaches road network must commence as soon as possible.

Captain Cook Highway

Finalise master planning for upgrade between Cairns and Smithfield by mid 2023 and $359m (State and Federal) be allocated for construction during 2023-2027.


With the Federal Government committing $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 with funding allocated for construction during 2023-2027.

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

Our Recommendation

  • That master planning for both major upgrades of the only two access routes from Cairns CBD to the northern beaches – the Captain Cook Hwy and Cairns Western Arterial – be finalised as a matter of urgency by mid 2023.

  • That the $359m pledged for Captain Cook Hwy upgrades be allocated over four years FY23-27 in the Federal Budget ($287m) and State Budget ($72m).

  • That the $300m pledged for Cairns Western Arterial duplication from Caravonica to Smithfield be allocated over four years FY23-27 in the Federal Budget ($240m) and State Budget ($60m).