By Stephanie Nestor, Assistant Editor, Infrastructure Magazine

Efforts to finish sealing Australia’s longest shortcut across Central Australia – the Outback Way – started over two decades ago, with recent government funding signalling that the end of the long-awaited highway’s construction is finally on the horizon. As a key tourism and freight route, the Outback Way is more than just a road. For remote Australia, the basic infrastructure of a paved road holds the potential to open up the country and connect communities with new opportunities.

Stretching 2,720km from Laverton in Western Australia to Winton in Queensland, is a series of connecting roads that form the Outback Highway, otherwise known as the Outback Way. Dubbed ‘Australia’s longest shortcut’, the Outback Way cuts through Central Australia to provide a direct route from East to West for tourists and freight drivers.

However, with almost 1,200km of the route left unsealed, the journey is difficult. Dirt and gravel roads are susceptible to damage and can be unusable after extreme weather events. So when these roads are out of action, it halts all movement in the region, leaving people isolated.

In February 2022, the Federal and Western Australian Governments announced $678 million in funding to seal the remaining sections of the Outback Way. $400 million has been allocated towards the Western Australian section, with the Western Australian Government contributing an extra $100 million, and $154 million going towards the Queensland section.

Once complete, a paved route that goes from one side of the country to the other can unlock numerous possibilities for remote Australia, which is often left disconnected from the rest of the nation.

Safety issues along the highway

Formed in 1998, the Outback Highway Development Council (OHDC Inc.) is an alliance of councils dedicated to advocating for the upgrading and sealing of the Outback Way. For decades, the OHDC Inc. has lobbied all levels of government to secure funding to upgrade gravel and seal dirt roads along the highway, as well as boost tourism for remote communities.

So far, the OHDC Inc. has secured $1.2 billion in funding and aims to get the Outback Way sealed by 2027/28. With increasingly frequent extreme weather events and a growing tourism sector, it is more important than ever to finish paving the highway to create a reliable way in, and out, of these remote areas.

OHDC Inc. General Manager, Mel Forbes, said leaving the route unsealed poses many safety issues that endanger drivers and deter visitors from entering Central Australia. “The unsealed sections are quite famous in parts for corrugations, making them rough and dusty. These dirt and gravel roads are prone to erosion, which means they are risky most of the year and unpassable during extreme weather events,” Ms Forbes said.

“With an increased risk of accidents and loose gravel along the roads, it’s just not the optimal surface to be travelling along. It makes it difficult to maintain control of vehicles and recreational vehicles, such as caravans, especially for drivers who are perhaps not as experienced as local drivers in those conditions.”

Ms Forbes also explained that there is also a massive economic impact to leaving the route partly unsealed. “For local communities, heavy rain can cut off communities and just stop everything. That in turn feeds into increased maintenance and more frequent repairs, which becomes quite expensive for councils and businesses.”

The evolution of tourism possibilities

There’s plenty to see and do along the Outback Way, including sites like Uluru, roadhouses, galleries, tours and more. But for many tourists, the journey can seem daunting as driving down the entire route can take well over a week.

Ms Forbes said paving the Outback Way will boost tourism in the region by improving accessibility and economic opportunities, allowing more people to experience what Central Australia has to offer.

“People are going to be much more inclined to do the quite lengthy drive if it’s not too bone-jarring and a lot more comfortable. There’s also the issue of breaking down in those areas, because people are a little mystified as to how they’re going to get out of that situation,” Ms Forbes said.

“What these upgrades will also do is increase the economic possibilities in terms of businesses setting up along the way, and therefore growing the economic capacities for the communities and the locals along the roads.

“There will be a continual evolution of tourism possibilities along the way as tourism providers work out different experiences, such as opening up accommodation and dining areas.

This will also offer more possibilities for the local Indigenous communities along the Outback Way to increase their financial security with steady work in the tourism industry or other entrepreneurial opportunities.”

With the world’s largest Geocache trail and the Outdoor Gallery – which displays 28 works of art on 14 billboards across 111km of the highway – the Outback Way is a growing space for artists and tourism. More people travelling through means more infrastructure being built and more money being injected into these remote communities.

Securing the route for industries

The Outback Way is utilised by many industries, including freight and logistics, tourism, agriculture and mining. Paving the rest of the highway will significantly reduce travel times, which will in turn provide a safer and more cost-effective route.

Currently, it takes a light vehicle 33.9 hours to travel along the Outback Way, whereas it takes a heavy vehicle nearly 40 hours to do the same journey. However, once the route is completely sealed, it is projected to be 19-20 hours for both light and heavy vehicles.

For heavy vehicles, cutting out 20 hours of driving can significantly reduce costs while also increasing the frequency of trucks and other vehicles making trips across the country to deliver essential goods.

Ms Forbes said this will not only make a massive difference for transportation companies, but also for communities as it will be less costly to distribute goods, including groceries and medicine, to remote areas.

“In Ngaanyatjarraku Shire stores, it’s estimated that goods and foods in that shop are 133 per cent higher in price compared to consumers in the city. And that’s not fresh food, that’s canned and tinned goods,” Ms Forbes said.

Even for the mining industry, transportation across remote Australia is already an expensive endeavour, but when a truck or heavy vehicle is using dirt or gravel roads, the costs can quickly add up.

“For one mining company, it is estimated that it costs $10 million per annum for transportation along unsealed roads in terms of fuel and increased maintenance. The mining industry obviously contributes a massive amount to the nation in their gross domestic product, so adding $4 per ton to the cost translates into adding another $4 per ton to bring products to market.”

Besides freight and mining, the cattle industry is set to benefit from a sealed Outback Way as well. “CSIRO modelling indicates that if the road between Boulia and Alice Springs is sealed, this will increase freight and enable those cattle producers to move their stock up to the ports and through the Northern Territory much easier.”

Reliable roads for communities

Living in remote areas often means being far from help in times of emergency, especially when groceries are expensive, medical care is limited and there is only one road out of town. Ms Forbes said a sealed highway will provide much better access to the essential services of healthcare, education, and emergency services.

“Having reliable road infrastructure that facilitates the transportation of medical personnel, supplies and equipment ensures improved healthcare services to those areas. Instead of people having to get into a truck and go along very bumpy roads when they’re not well, it will mean that there’s a chance for medical personnel to actually come to them,” Ms Forbes said.

Sealed roads mean remote communities are easily accessible for both locals and visitors, opening up opportunities for employment and education. “In terms of staffing those remote communities, knowing that it’s easy to get in and leave these towns, improves its attractiveness as a place to go work for a few years. Since COVID-19, the employment rate has been such a massive issue across Australia, especially in remote areas.

“That turns into opportunities for the local kids to have greater access to activities that are potentially off-community. Travelling and participating in life will enable them to be much more familiar with life outside of their remote community.”

While tourism and industry can boost economic growth in remote Australia, an increased number of drivers can pose issues for Aboriginal communities as well, with worries that over-development will push out vulnerable people. This is why the project is planning how to create the right connections for these communities.

“Even though upgrading the highway will open up and allow those remote communities the opportunity to participate in economic development, it will also allow them to clearly choose how they want to participate, because not everyone in any community wants to deal with a whole lot of people passing through their towns.

“What this does is it enables those communities by giving them agency to decide how development is going to roll out rather than having it be imposed on them.”

It’s about everyone

When building opportunities and infrastructure for remote areas, it all starts with the paving of a road. While a sealed road is taken for granted in urban areas, the paving of the Outback Way highlights how roads can connect remote communities and industries.

“We want to learn from what has been done in the past and make this the most inclusive and positive piece of infrastructure for everyone, and it is about everyone. It’s great to talk about the economic benefits, but ultimately, it’s about people, it’s about communities, and it’s about our broad culture,” Ms Forbes said.

“Ensuring that everyone has access to opportunities and basic things like healthcare and education, while also being able to grow opportunities from where they are, rather than having to relocate, those things just don’t happen unless you have the basic infrastructure of a road.”

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