"Seal road for East Coast alternative" - The Mercury

THE snap decision to close Tasman Highway at Paradise Gorge last Friday serves to highlight why the state government must invest in a proper upgrade of Wielangta Road.

Sealing this winding gravel road, which runs from Copping to Orford, will provide a true alternative East Coast route.

And it can be developed for a fraction of the cost of building a new road.

I publicly called for such an upgrade in February last year, saying “Wielangta Road is an increasingly important artery and it is time the Liberals got serious about properly funding it” but I was knocked back.

I am by no means the first person to call for this to happen.

On June 3 the Mercury quoted long-time Orford resident Leith Thompson who has been lobbying successive state governments for more than 30 years.

Unfortunately, as far as the state government and its road bureaucrats are concerned, Wielangta Rd is just an old forestry road whose maintenance can be duckshoved on to local councils.

It’s simply not a priority.

The events of the past week have demonstrated how shortsighted that view is.

With last week’s closure of Tasman Highway, travellers to and from the East Coast must now risk driving on the loose gravel of Wielangta Rd or take a much longer loop up the Midland Highway, east along Lake Leake Rd, and then head south on the Tasman Highway before hitting Swansea, Triabunna and Orford.

The Wielangta route adds up to an hour of travel time, longer in poor weather or at night, whereas the highway route adds a whopping two to two-and-a-half hours.

With the extra travel time it’s now taking, it’s little wonder that most travel to the East Coast has dried up.

The only people now making the journey are doing it for work or school, or out of necessity, such as for doctors’ appointments.

The government unfortunately hasn’t provided a clear answer on how long Tasman Highway will remain closed.

We are told it could be 12 weeks, or even longer.

The livelihoods of east coast communities should not be held hostage to whether Tasman Highway remains open.

Properly upgrading Wielangta Rd with bitumen is a terrific project with long- term benefits.

It provides an alternative route to Tasman Highway, especially for the increasing number of people living south of Sorell, and it will be a picturesque drive for tourists in hire cars who currently can’t use it because it’s gravel.

Sealing Wielangta Rd is a medium to long-term project but of more immediate concern is the incomes and livelihoods of people on the east coast whose businesses have been smashed by the highway’s closure.

That’s why I’ve also called on Premier Peter Gutwein to implement a JobKeeper style program for affected East Coast businesses, where the state government can subsidise the incomes of owners and employees.

It should only have to last until the highway reopens but if it stops businesses going bust and people losing their jobs, it will be worth it.

Brian Mitchell MHR is the Federal Labor Member for Lyons

This opinion piece featured in The Mercury on June 4.