Tablelands Access

Briefing Note Summary

There are four main roads linking Cairns with the Atherton Tablelands: Palmerston Highway, Gillies Range Road, Kuranda Range Road, and Mossman Mt Molloy Road.

The Kuranda Range Road has already exceeded its capacity of 9500 vehicle movements per day, catering for up to 11,000 daily traffic movements. On average the road is closed 44 times every year for around 6.6 hours each time.

The Palmerston Highway connects Innisfail to Millaa Millaa on the Southern Tablelands. It is a critical road to connect the agriculture and mining sectors of Tropical North Queensland with the port of Mourilyan.

Extending the NLTN from Smithfield to Mareeba will ensure continued economic and social development of the region and will improve national and regional connectivity.

The Issue

Four main road networks

The road networks linking Cairns with the vital agricultural, mining, and tourism regions of the Atherton Tablelands and beyond are critical enablers of the regional economy. With sizeable growth in both agriculture and mining in the region predicted in the next decade, a safe and reliable road network that enables increased heavy vehicle traffic is vital for economic growth and prosperity in the region. The road network in and out of Cairns acts as the main distribution hub for the region and is essential to further developing the agricultural and mining exports of the region. However, meeting the growing demands for freight has strained existing infrastructure, impacting transport costs and service levels across the supply chain.

There are four main roads linking Cairns with the Atherton Tablelands: Palmerston Highway and Gillies Range Road servicing the Southern Tablelands, and the Kuranda Range Road and Mossman Mount Molloy Road for the Northern Tablelands. Two of these roads, the Palmerston Highway and Kuranda Range Road, are considered priority transport routes for goods to and from the region1. All roads pass through World Heritage-listed areas, increasing the complexity of any potential transport solution.

The Palmerston Highway connects Innisfail to Millaa Millaa on the Southern Tablelands. It is a critical road to connect the agriculture and mining sectors of Tropical North Queensland with the port of Mourilyan. However, it requires significant upgrades to allow road trains to use the route on a regular basis.

The Kuranda Range Road (Kennedy Highway, Cairns/Mareeba section) links Smithfield with Kuranda and is the main coastal gateway to the Atherton Tablelands, Cape York Peninsula, and the Gulf Savannah. It is a critical link for commuter, commercial, and visitor traffic in Tropical North Queensland and a vital strategic corridor linking the Atherton Tablelands, North Tropical Coast, and Cape York to the Cairns Airport and seaports. The Kuranda Range Road underpins the commercial viability of primary industries, producers, and exporters in the region in providing access to markets through the Cairns air and seaports, and road links to southern markets2. In recent years, there has been a rapid increase in traffic demand due to growth in tourism, freight movement, and residential development on the Tablelands. FNQROC reports the road is now operating beyond capacity with safety and traffic efficiency now at critical levels for action.

There are other impediments to a safe and efficient transport corridor from Cairns to the Tablelands. The Barron River Bridge on the Kennedy Highway at Kuranda was reduced to one lane and load limited to 50.5 tonnes for a year due to concerns over the safety and stability of the bridge. The State Government in March 2021 announced a $2.1m investigation into long-term solutions for either replacing or rehabilitating the bridge3.

In July 2020, the then Federal Government released the 2019 National Land Transport Network (NLTN) Determination Review, confirming the National Highway A1 would be extended from Cairns to Smithfield. The objectives of an integrated land transport network include improving national and regional connectivity for communities and industry; improving national, regional, and international logistics; and trade and consistency with viable, long-term economic and social outcomes4.

Continuing the NLTN from Smithfield to Mareeba would meet these objectives and ensure the continued economic and social development of the Atherton Tablelands region and beyond. It would be the next logical step in the network, with Mareeba being the gateway to the region’s agriculture production areas of Atherton Tablelands, Cape York Peninsula, and the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Background

Bolstering transport in FNQ

In late 2021, the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads began a $30m project to upgrade Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) on the Kuranda Range Road, adding variable message signs, variable speed limits, radar technology (to determine travel times and traffic levels), and closed-circuit television. The department has since completed its $1.6m Cairns to Northern Tablelands Access Strategy, looking at improving the capacity and efficiency of transport routes between Cairns and the Northern Tablelands5. This study investigated current problems and future needs with the aim to determine the most appropriate solutions for the existing routes.

The Access Strategy identified Kuranda Range Road as high significance to the regional economy due to its direct line of access to Cairns CBD, the port, and the airport for traffic and freight. It acknowledged regular road closures related to weather and traffic crashes have significant impacts on the reliability of the corridors and delays to motorists. However, the study also found none of the existing corridors were operating at capacity and modelling had identified major infrastructure upgrades or new alignments were not required in the short to medium term.

The study has recommended an alternative route as a potential long-term solution and that actions to progress this planning should begin.

Despite the Access Strategy’s conclusion, local industry experts and stakeholders firmly believe the road has already exceeded its capacity of 9500 vehicle movements per day, catering for up to 11,000 daily traffic movements. Each year the road experiences an average of 44 closures, each one impacting traffic for as long as 6.6 hours5. The corridor has been the subject of multiple impact assessments and design studies dating back to 2000 but is yet to see any major upgrades other than targeted safety measures. While the need to improve the link and undertake necessary long-term planning was identified in the 2009-2031 Far North Queensland Infrastructure Plan6, more than 13 years on this remains a critical infrastructure project that is yet to secure significant funding.

In the lead up to the 2022 federal election, the ALP committed $210m towards safety and capacity upgrades on the Kuranda Range Road. It is now vital that we see this money in the October 2022 Budget.

Next Steps

To address short-term safety, it is vital that the Federal Government’s $210m commitment is included in the October 2022 Budget, including $21m to undertake a Strategic Assessment of Service Requirements (SASR) and preliminary business case, led by the FNQ Regional Organisation of Councils, to provide much-needed certainty for the project.

There have been 21 years of studies on the Kuranda Range Road with most recommendations not implemented. As a result, safety, capacity, and efficiency issues are now at a critical point. Failure to address this issue has also resulted in constraints on economic development in the region, as evidenced by the now abandoned $600m KUR-World tourism development project. Continued growth in tourism, agriculture, mining, and population on the Atherton Tablelands and beyond mean it is imperative that a solution is developed for access from Cairns to the Tablelands prior to a major crisis.

Our Recommendation

  • That the Federal Government delivers on its election commitment and includes $210m for Kuranda Range Road in the October Budget, including $21m for a preliminary evaluation and business case to future proof this vital economic corridor.
  • That the Queensland Government works with the Federal Government to amend the National Land Transport Act 2014 to extend the national highway designation from its current terminus at the intersection of Captain Cook and Kennedy Highways to the intersection of the Kennedy Highway and the Mulligan Highway.

Sources

  1. FNQROC (2020), State Government Regional Priorities, Far North Queensland Regional Organisation of Councils https://www.fnqroc.qld.gov.au/files/media/original/004/d6c/243/58c/State-Delegation-Brief-August-2020-Web-V2.0.pdf
  2. FNQROC Kuranda Range Road Far North Queensland Regional Priority August 2019 (https://www.fnqroc.qld.gov.au/files/media/original/004/98d/138/272/FNQROC-Kuranda-Range-Road-August-2019-_DIGITAL.PDF)
  3. Cluff R. Government investigates replacement of Barron River Bridge, Tropic Now. 2020 18 Mar. Available from: https://www.tropicnow.com.au/2021/march/18/government-investigates-replacement-of-barron-river-bridge
  4. Australian Government Infrastructure Investment Program, What is Infrastructure Investment?, (https://investment.infrastructure.gov.au/about/what_is_infr3astructure_investment.aspx).
  5. Department of Transport and Main Roads https://www.tmr.qld.gov.au/projects/cairns-to-northern-tablelands-ac­cess-strategy-planning
  6. Queensland Government 2009, Far North Queensland Infrastructure Plan 2009 – 2031, https://cabinet.qld.gov.au/documents/2009/feb/far%20north%20queensland%20infrastructure%20plan/Attachments/Final%20FNQ%20Infra­structure%20Plan.pdf