Back to the future on roads?

20/02/2008 - 22:00

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The Stephenson Highway is a name that sends shivers up the spines of many residents in Perth’s western suburbs.

The Stephenson Highway is a name that sends shivers up the spines of many residents in Perth’s western suburbs.

Often considered one of the last pieces of infrastructure in the planned major road network for Perth, the name is a working title for a road that was meant to join Fremantle with Osborne Park via Churchlands.

It originally encompassed a series of road reserves, including a couple of pieces of road that look independent of each other but are called Stephenson Avenue.

These streets and the phantom highway are named after Professor Gordon Stephenson, who co-authored the state’s 1955 ‘Plan for the Metropolitan Region’ with Alistair Hepburn.

It shows how quickly a city can develop. In less than 50 years from the pencilling in of a few lines over what was in many places bushland, the highway route has been hemmed in by development and largely killed off.

The highway became a political hot potato in the latter part of Richard Court’s rein because it passed through some Liberal seats.

Newspaper headlines before the February 2001 state election reflected community concern about highways being created by stealth – despite more than 40 years of public planning – complete with anti-road train lobbies threatening to voice their concerns.

There was the inevitable fear campaign of trucks rumbling past, shaking chandeliers from their Federation-style ceilings.

The advent of Labor has done little to change things. The new government had little to concern voters in Perth’s so-called golden triangle, but its own ideology has put an emphasis on public transport for commuters and rail for freight.

So the Stephenson Highway remained buried and largely forgotten.

But that could all change, with a quiet undertaking that could alter the face of Osborne Park and Innaloo.

Called the Stirling Regional City Centre, the Department of Planning and Infrastructure has been working on a development for a mini-CBD, which would straddle the freeway north of Innaloo, near where Ikea has just opened its new superstore.

Some suggest the project could entail up to $4 billion in government and private development. That would make it yet another huge project for the city, which is starting to have a pipeline of ideas that will keep business busy for years to come.

One of the obstacles the plan appears to have hit is that it requires dusting off the plans for the Stephenson Highway.

While the immediate cause of this is localised to Stirling, the issue shows why planning is both so important, and so difficult.

The council wants to see the very northern-most stretch of the proposed highway constructed to link the Mitchell Freeway with Scarborough Beach Road, which bears the brunt of congestion between the commercial districts of Osborne Park and Inaloo.

That would join it with an existing piece of Stephenson Avenue which, in turn, links Jon Sanders Drive and Pearson Street at the northen end of Herdsman Lake.

Sounds easy? Not on your life.

Firstly, while everyone seems to acknowledge that the road must be built, there’s an internal debate going on within government about what form it will take, especially the way it links with the freeway.

The cheapest option would be a simple slip road, significantly more costly is an access with ramps and flyovers.

Making a decision now is important because it will define the amount of surrounding land needed and change the proposed development. The cheap option means the road can be more easly funded, and therefore more likely to happen quickly, as well as freeing up more land for sale to commercial users.

But a simple road may have longer-term consequences if future traffic options are close off.

In the middle of that fight lie the concerned residents of suburbs to the south, who wonder where all this traffic coming off the freeway might actually go.

There is a view within Stirling that Stephenson Avenue ought to be extended south along the western edge of Herdsman Lake.

Independent state member for Churchlands Liz Constable has voiced her concerns about this project in the past, acknowledging that Osborne Park’s traffic problems are significant but questioning whether that ought to be shifted into areas such as Wembley and Floreat.

The big problem is what can happen next?

Even if the government wanted to trample over mainly Liberal voters and build the highway, it hits a number of bigger issues that would keep it in the headlines.

The original highway was to split Bold Park and the public golf course at Wembley, so you’d expect both environmental and community protests over that.

Back in 2000, then opposition transport spokeswoman Alannah MacTiernan labelled the then 40-year-old Hepburn-Stephenson master plan for road transport corridors as hopelessly out of date.

“Perth has grown and community values have changed considerably in that intervening 40 years,” Ms MacTiernan reportedly said.

“There is going to be great difficulty in completing the network as it now stands. When it was drawn up environmental sensitivity was a very different thing to what it is today.

“We’ve got to go back to the drawing board on this one and we’ve got to have an independent review of it.”

Now planning and infrastructure minister, Ms MacTiernan has the ultimate responsibility for deciding how all this will pan out.

The hardest part will be balancing the needs of the people of Stirling and those of the suburbs to the south – without stifling or delaying yet another much-needed infrastructure project.

And all that with an election coming up.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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