Council budget cuts see projects put on ice

Paul Bibby

Byron Council has been forced to shelve its plans for an upgrade to the Mullumbimby swimming pool and the reactivation of the Byron rail line owing to the financial impact of COVID-19.

The agenda to last week’s Council meeting revealed that there is a projected budget deficit of $1.353 million for the 2020/2021 financial year, stemming directly from the loss of revenue caused by the pandemic.

Water pollo grand final played at Mullumbimby Pool. Photo Jeff ‘don’t splash me’ Dawson

As a consequence, Council has been forced to reduce spending by cutting back on a number of activities.

‘We didn’t make this decision lightly,’ Council’s general manager Mark Arnold said of the decision to cut a study exploring the feasibility of the Mullumbimby pool upgrade.

‘We looked for every possible opportunity to include this, which would have cost about $50,000, in the budget. But it would mean going into deficit.’

The pool upgrade, which has widespread support among locals in the northern part of the Shire, was to include solar heating, so that it could remain open all year round.

There was also to have been a disability access ramp, a ‘splash down’ children’s play pool and a rehabilitation pool.

‘We have obviously hit a very difficult financial situation and it’s one of those situations through COVID-19 where we see ourselves unable to fund some of the projects we’re passionate about and invested in, and that we look at our priorities,’ Greens deputy Mayor Sarah Ndiaye said.

The other project to be shelved was a study into options for reactivating some or all of the old abandoned rail line between Byron and Mullumbimby.

Cr Basil Cameron, a long-time advocate of the rail activation plan as a way of addressing the Shire’s transport woes, said the project remained a priority.

‘It’s absolutely vital that we lead in that process [of activation],’ Cr Cameron said.

‘I acknowledge that it’s been left out of the budget, and I’m hoping we can bring that back into the budget sooner rather than later.’

It is the Council’s intent to recover the budget shortfall during the course of the 2020/2021 financial year, as ‘public health order restrictions continue to ease and economic activity starts to recover’.

However, it is far from certain that this will be possible.

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13 responses to “Council budget cuts see projects put on ice”

  1. Greg Clitheroe says:

    Last year they could have saved the $300K of ratepayer funds squandered on the Arcadis report that achieved nothing at all.

    Make sure to vote out those who indulged in their ridiculous fantasy that resurrecting a derelict railway line buried under vegetation for more than a decade could make a viable contribution to the transport needs of the shire.

  2. Louise says:

    Traffic coming over the boarder into NSW from Qld has doubled in the last decade and will continue to double and traffic congestion in our towns will be unbearable unless we have a more sustainable way for visitors to get here: Which is a fast, safe, comfortable, accessible to all, emissions reducing, commuter train service.

    Traffic congestion, requiring $24m to be spent building the Byron by-pass plus, all the expensive road widening and road maintenance, is already costing ratepayers far too much. Then there’s the health costs, loss of quality of life and public amenity due to choked up towns and toxic fumes.

    Spending $100m or more of taxpayers’ money digging up a valuable $4 billion publicly owned train line, most of which is in reasonable condition, to replace it with a very expensive bike track, that will not reduce traffic congestion or emissions, and won’t provide transport for a single person, is not only a ‘ridiculous fantasy ‘ but sheer bloody vandalism. of the worst kind.

    Like CSG, the Northern Rivers community will never allow it to happen.

  3. Bill Fenelon says:

    300k a waste, you must be kidding, you are obviously a supporter of more cars on the road. A used car dealer or something. Byron desperately needs this public transport and the railway is actually in very good condition, I know, I have walked the track. Other railway engineers reports say the same thing .. Read the Arcadis Report.

  4. Emily Stewart says:

    I think you are getting transport and tourism mixed up. The area is in economic dire straits because tourism has declined. Ask Simon Richardson if the tourism dollar keeps the Northern Rivers afloat. Ask the Bureau of Statistics where the Northern Rivers gets its income from and if the tourism dollar declines then what happens to the area?
    Why is the Byron Bay railway station such a focal point of the town for locals even when there is no train?

  5. Greg Clitheroe says:

    The Arcadis Report said the line was in “reasonable condition” without ever defining what was meant by the word “reasonable”. Any reasoned assessment would conclude that the parts of line buried in vegetation for more than a decade would be seriously degraded.

    Moreover, several sections of the line were only viewed from a drone because they were completely inaccessible. According to the report, one substantial section was assessed on the basis of the “one metre of track that was visible”.Apparently it did not occur to the authors that the condition of the line under the vegetation would be radically different from what they could see. Decaying vegetation is quite acidic, promoting rapid corrosion of steel and accelerating the decay of wood.

    A fast alternative way to reach Byron might make some small difference to the traffic but the old corridor cannot support fast trains. Indeed the Arcadis report proposes that the speed on the line would be limited to 60 kph. Besides, who is going to drive from Queensland to park their car at Yelgun and wait for a slow expensive train to complete the last few kilometres into central Byron?

  6. Liz L says:

    It is all true that Byron Bay’s traffic is unbearable and will become increasingly so. I can’t see how the reinstatement of the line between Mullum and Byron (as per this halted proposal) will help get the hordes from Qld to Byron. This proposal also encompasses ‘multi-use’ but never lose an opportunity to denounce the rail trail and pronounce ‘elitists’ now ‘sheer bloody vandals’, anyone who wants to cycle as opposed to sight-see in a train. .

    I would question the notion though that good cycle infrastructure won’t reduce congestion and emissions. It’s an entirely feasible bike commute from Mullum to Byron for work etc especially with the increasingly efficient developments in electric bikes. Other areas of the shire would also become safe, comfortable cycle commutes eg Bangalow to Byron Bay, Suffolk Park to Byron Bay etc the shire just needs some good cycle infrastructure which is currently pretty abysmal for a heavily congested and nominally ‘Green’ shire.

    Bill, the 300k isn’t to provide you with any actual transport at this stage. Would that it could! It’s to add to the already 300 odd k frittered away on investigation.

    Basil Cameron has so often been a minority voice of reason on Council but I think he is following heart rather than head on this one.

  7. Greg Clitheroe says:

    I can assure Bill Fenelon that I have read the Arcadis Report a lot more closely than he has, performing a critical review of the claims that should have been done by Byron Councillors had they been doing the job they are paid to do.

    My conclusions is that, at best it is optimistically naive, through to negligent and willfully misleading. The basis for resurrecting the railway is centred on Very Light Rail vehicles which are somehow half the weight of any existing rail technology. Images of VLR vehicles were included in the report along with the claim that they were “currently being tested in the UK”. In fact all those images were computer renderings. None of them exist, let alone “currently being tested”.

    The report suggests that the line could be resurrected for these VLR vehicles by replacing between five and ten percent of sleepers ultimately up to 25 percent over time. Despite their own assessment, all costings are based on replacing just one in twenty sleepers leaving a massive delayed cost blowout. Five percent is one sleeper every twelve metres to support a vehicle with a track width of 142 centimetres. Good luck finding a qualified railway engineer to certify that for safety.

    Bill claims the track is “in very good condition” which is nonsense. The Arcadis Report refers only to “reasonable condition” while explaining that it was impossible to access substantial sections of the track due to impenetrable overgrowth of vegetation. Yet Bill and others claim to have walked the track. Clear that was not recently.

    By referring to “other railway engineers” Bill implies he is a railway engineer himself. Can Bill please confirm his railway engineer qualifications.

    Perhaps we could get a better understanding of the Arcadis Report by reading the Terms of Reference document they were given. Byron Council refuses make this available. I wonder what they have to hide?

    As is typical of rail advocates, Bill’s post consisted mainly of attacking my character. This is done when people have no substance to their own claims.

  8. Peter Hatfield says:

    Bill Fenelon
    I read the Arcadis report, with the benifit of having read feasibility studies for decades for the Australian, New Zealand and other regional governments. It’s a joke.
    What sort of feasibility assessment for a tourist focused country rail uses city transport mode share to estimate usage, and that in a Shire with among the lowest usage of existing public transport anywhere? What sort of study into a transport is done in advance of a transport strategy and ignores the regional transport strategy? What sort of study on rail is silent on how a rail service would integrate with existing public transport, or how it would help residents or serve destinations – like Byron Hospital or schools – away from the line? What sort of assessment of a path beside it ignores that it forms part of a Northern Rivers Rail Trail, already found by the studies for stages one and two – and by state and Commonwealth governments – to be likely to attract more than enough visitors to generate a positive return on investment? And what sort of report on multi use does not address the specific engineering issues and costs of building a path beside the rail, which other rail trail investigations have found to be probibitive?
    Those rail trail studies have given us a shovel ready projects to generate post Covid-19 jobs in construction and when built ,jobs in businesses serving thousands of locals and visitors. A study to complete the rail trail through Byron Shire would cost far less than that for a rail service, and could consider in detail if it can be built beside the rail line and at what additional cost (the ARCADIS report did find it was not possible between Mullum and Billinudgel).
    The rail corridor belongs to the people of NSW. If Byron Shire cannot follow the example of your Greens mate in the ACT Government and get ratepayers to pay hundreds of dollars in additional annual rates – while cutting out direct commuter and school bus services – to fund a rail service, its time to get on with getting the government funding that is readily available to deliver the visitor spending, jobs and recreation we need coming out of the Covid-19 by repurposing and protecting the corridor as a rail trail .

  9. Tim Shanasy says:

    Totally agree..
    Spending any money on any studies to resurrecting the rail service, is a complete waste.
    You may as well flush it done the toilet.
    We’ve already lost $300,000 by this deluded council.
    And any dreams of any government to fund the actual rebuilding of it, is an insane fantasy.
    The corridor is a world treasure for a Rail Trail.
    A no-brainer.
    It will be a perfect optional partner with our existing coastal surfing lifestyle.

  10. Louise says:

    No amount of uninformed spin will ever justify to the Northern Rivers community spending $100m + of taxpayers’ money to destroy a $4 BILLION train line when public transport is so desperately needed in the region, including a connection to Coolangatta and the airport.

    The governments’ own 2012 Condition Assessment Report shows that almost 80% of the line only needs minor restoration to run trains.

    No one is stopping people cycling- rail engineers have said a perfectly adequate bike track can be built along most of the line for very little cost.

    So why are cyclists demanding the line be destroyed and denying millions of sustainable public transport?

    Bottom line is politicians know exactly what the community wants. Thanks to candidates with a gung ho attitude to ripping up the line for a bike track, they’ve lost two, long held, National Party state seats, Lismore and Ballina.

  11. Liz L says:

    Where to start, Louise:

    * Uninformed spin? I don’t pretend to have a wide breadth of knowledge on the topic but, unlike the comments of people like Peter H and Greg C, who actually engage with the relevant studies and employ data and consistent reasoning, I have never read anything in the way of hard-headed analysis employed by the TOOT brigade. It all seems to be vague and sweeping motherhood statements about traffic/emissions problems and the virtues of public transport. Trouble is no-one disagrees, it’s a matter of what public transport solution best deals with the greatest numbers and greatest needs for the most cost effective solution in terms of both capital outlay and environmental implications. This is the case I have never heard put coherently by TOOT. And for the record the old trains were not emissions free.

    * A 2012 report is already over eight years behind the current situation in terms of both track condition and changes in demographics, facilities placement and travel patterns. And what constitutes the remaining 20% + that requires more than minor restoration? Might that include the odd bridge or other major outlay?

    * There just may be a complexity of factors that lead to the outcome of elections. A bit of a long bow drawn here. What about Geoff Provest, member for Tweed, an area of the Northern Rivers where the rail trail is underway?

    What if we wait an eternity for the sake of a never-never and intransigent vision? What if, in the process, we expend scarce local rates revenue while simultaneously losing the chance to keep public land in public ownership and develop a spectacular facility for a low emission and health enhancing activity for leisure and transactional travel?

  12. Greg Clitheroe says:

    Lismore electorate was won by Janelle Saffin who is pro-trail. Greens candidate Sue Higginson looked like the real deal until she stated that the rail corridor was our best public transport resource. It cost her the election.

    TOOT’s Bill Fenelon ran for Greens in Tweed. Clearly he was running on a railway platform. The result was a swing against the Green vote. The results do not support a widespread demand for a train.

    Before the election, Greens Tamara Smith said she was pro-trail. It is only recently she showed her hand and as backed the retention of the track and building the trail alongside despite widespread acknowledgement that it is obviously not practical to build off formation. We have wait a few years to see how that pans out.

    Rail advocate argument for trains say it needs to go through to Coolangatta. Any such line would first have to go through a tunnel under Tweed because the resumption cost and social disruption cost of putting a railway through suburbia would be prohibitive. This tunnel was costed in the Tweed Transport Strategy several years ago at a billion dollars.

    Continuing south, a line as far as Murwuillumbah but along the M1 would bring it to within eight kilometres of rejoining the corridor at Yelgun. It would also save nearly 20 km off the journey and the need to reconstruct 26 kilometres of decrepit line through Burringbar Range as well as running closer to the the expanding Tweed Coast villages.

    It is abundantly clear that the line from Murwillumbah to Yelgun will never have train services again. Let’s get on with building the best rail trail we can on the formation from Murwillumbah to Crabbes creek. The debate will go on about the Byron section.

    I just hope the State government is still handing out the Regional Development funds made available through asset sales when the Byron Council has made up its mind. They are providing money for rail trails and not for railways. We either have a trail or nothing.

  13. Liz L says:

    Thanks, Greg, for the more detailed analysis of the local voting outcomes. The alternative interpretation seems just a small example of the way the ‘rail good, everything else bad’ brigade is the way they are happy to throw around any wild claims that suit the narrative.

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