Independent candidate for the seat of Ballina, Jeff Johnson, has come up with what he considers to be a win-win, which would see a controversial section of the Pacific Highway re-routed and the money put into reopening the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line.
Mr Johnson said that if the section of highway duplication south of Ballina was moved from the contentious Blackwall Ranges, where it is set to split up a source koala population, and redirected to its original path it would generate a one-off $300 million saving.
‘I believe the savings would easily allow a major part of it between Lismore and Billinudgel to be used for a commuter light rail service,’ Mr Johnson told Echonetdaily.
‘We have three million visitors annually to our region and major traffic congestion. It makes no sense to have a rail line sitting idle while the area becomes increasingly congested.’
A report commissioned by the state government in 2012 concluded that the section between Byron Bay and Mullumbimby alone would cost more than $200 million to restore to XPT standards but Mr Johnson is one of many critics of the study.
‘That really discredited report that put it at about $60 million even though [similar projects] costs about one-fifth of that in Victoria,’ he said.
‘The people at Elements of Byron [formerly North Byron Beach Resort] say it will only be about $300,000 per kilometre to do their bit,’ he added.
He concedes that ‘if you extrapolate the difference between the highest and lowest costs, it would be somewhere in the middle.’
But Mr Johnson’s ambitious plan doesn’t end there. He wants to see the line joined up with the planned Queensland Rail extension to Gold Coast Airport.
‘We see the Queensland government buying back the corridor to Coolangatta Airport. It makes sense that all those daytrippers can get the train down.
‘We can fund commuter and tourist rail within the existing infrastructure and transport budget and then we should be looking as a region-building project, extending the line to the airport.
‘There are so many more positives for our community if the government invests in an integrated public transport system than there ever will be from an over-priced bike track for tourists.
‘It’s time the government had a long-term sustainable vision for our area instead of pushing for urban sprawl and increasing traffic congestion,’ he said.
Mr Johnson’s vision for the future rail link does not extend to Ballina, however, which he said would be connected via buses.
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