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 9,500 vehicle movements per day, catering for up to 10,000 daily traffic movements. The average number of annual closures of the Kuranda Range Road is 44, with an average duration of 6.6 hours.
Strategies for improving road reliability and connectivity as outlined in the Cairns Tablelands Access Strategy July 2021 should be funded and delivered as a matter of urgency.
The road from Smithfield to Mareeba is of national significance, links into the current NLTN network, includes internodal connections and should be redesignated to a NLTN road. NLTN designation will ensure continued economic and social development of the region and will improve national and regional connectivity.
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 heavy vehicles 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 rapid growth in traffic demand due to growth in tourism, freight movement, and residential development on the Tablelands. 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.
The Federal Government, in its July 2020 release of the 2019 National Land Transport Network (NLTN) Determination Review, confirmed 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 as well as ensuring 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.
Bolstering transport in FNQ
The Kuranda Range Road has been the subject of multiple impact assessments and design studies dating back to 2000 but is yet to see significant investment. The road has already exceeded its capacity of 9,500 vehicle movements per day, catering for up to 10,000 daily traffic movements. During 2018/2019, the Cairns to Mareeba section of the Kennedy Highway experienced 130 unplanned closures5. While the need to upgrade the road was identified in the 2009-2031 Far North Queensland Infrastructure Plan6, more than 10 years on this remains a critical infrastructure project but is yet to secure significant funding.
In late 2021, the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads will commence 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 carried out the $1.6M Cairns to Northern Tablelands access planning study, looking at improving the capacity and efficiency of transport routes between Cairns and the Northern Tablelands7. This study examined all existing routes to determine the most appropriate focus for future planning and investment.
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 in economic development in the region. 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.
To address the critical long-term safety and capacity issues, it is essential that a preliminary evaluation and business case ($21M) is announced to plan for duplication of the Kuranda Range Road by 2022.
- 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.
- That, subject to evaluation of the $1.6M Cairns to Northern Tablelands Access Strategy, the Queensland and Federal Governments commit $20M (shared 50:50) to undertake a preliminary evaluation and business case for upgrading Kuranda Range Road.
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 Mason, G. Kuranda Range closed 130 times by crashes and debris during 2018/19, Cairns Post 2019 July 5. Available from: https://www.cairnspost.com.au/news/cairns/kuranda-range-closed-130-times-by-crashes-and-debris-during-201819/news-story/0e02e54290fad892522fe646400af8e0
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
7 Department of Transport and Main Roads https://www.tmr.qld.gov.au/projects/cairns-to-northern-tablelands-access-strategy-planning