Cahill Expressway/Eastern Distributor/Eastern Freeway: History and Development


Early Planning

The Cahill Expressway, or Circular Quay Overhead Roadway as it was then known, was first proposed in 1919 as part of John Bradfield’s harbour crossing and electric railway plan for the City of Sydney . While the bridge and electric railway parts of the plan were commenced soon afterwards the proposed Expressway was forced to bide its time. Fortunately the proposal was seen again in later planning schemes and did not meet a premature death like other Bradfield proposals, including the construction of an eight-lane highway along Martin Place .

The County of Cumberland Planning Scheme 1951 saw the establishment of freeway corridor from the CBD to Old South Head Road at Bondi Junction along Moore Park Rd and Oxford Street and including a bypass of Bondi Junction. The planning scheme did not include detailed planning for the CBD, nor did it included roads in that area, however, a complimentary road layout for the central areas was adopted by the City of Sydney Planning Conference to provide a continuous network. Put together, these two plans provided for a F7 Freeway from the southern approach of the Sydney Harbour Bridge , via a viaduct over Circular Quay, a tunnel under the Botanic Gardens, a surface route via Taylor Square , Moore Park Rd and Oxford Street to an elevated bypass of Bondi Junction. The Cahill Expressway section was originally called ‘Circular Quay Overhead Roadway’ and the Woolloomooloo/Darlinghurst section was known as the Eastern Distributor. Once the expressway turned east at Moore Park Rd it was called Eastern Freeway. According to the Department of Main Roads; “the road system formed by the Cahill Expressway, the Eastern Distributor and the Eastern Freeway [was] intended to provide an unobstructed route to the eastern suburbs, as an alternative to the existing congested routes through Kings Cross and Taylor Square .”1

Cahill Expressway

Whilst the Cahill Expressway was first proposed by the John Bradfield in 1919, as the Circular Quay Overhead Roadway, it was not until 1945 that the position of the Cahill Expressway was determined by the Department of Main Roads, as part of its expressway plan for Sydney . When the design of the overhead expressway and railway at Circular Quay became public in 1948, there was considerable opposition. Many described the design as ‘ridiculous’, ‘ugly’, ‘unsightly’ and a ‘monstrosity’,2 words which are still associated with the structure today. A Quay Planning Protest Committee was formed to fight the proposal but they were ultimately defeated and the Cahill Expressway went on to be the first of the County of Cumberland Planning Scheme ’s expressways to be constructed.

Funded jointly by the State (jointly from Department of Main Roads and Department of Railways accounts) and Council of the City of Sydney , the first stage of the Cahill Expressway was commenced in 1955. This first stage involved building a four-lane viaduct from Observatory Hill, across Circular Quay, to Conservatorium Place , allowing traffic from the Harbour Bridge to proceed to the north and east of the CBD without having to pass through the congested city streets. At its western end, a tunnel was constructed beneath the Harbour Bridge toll plaza and a 270 degree loop cut into observatory hill to take the westbound lanes of the expressway north onto the Harbour Bridge. The construction of the viaduct at Circular Quay would dramatically change the street-scape forever, with rows of 19 th century terraces demolished at York Street North . The first stage was officially opened to traffic by Premier Joe Cahill on 24 March 1958 and, at this stage, was known as the Circular Quay Overhead Roadway. Premier Cahill, in his speech at the opening, described the expressway as ‘a striking symbol of Sydney ’s growth and maturity and a monument to the skill and industry of the people’.3

The second stage, a south-easterly extension from Conservatorium Place to Plunkett St, Woolloomooloo, was commenced in January 1959 after having been approved much earlier in July 1956. If one thought a massive railway/expressway viaduct across Circular Quay was a travesty, than surely this next section takes the cake. From Conservatorium Place the expressway was constructed in a deep cutting along the western edge of the Royal Botanic Gardens, passing beneath Shakespeare Place and then severing the Domain from the Royal Botanic Gardens. Whilst the section between Conservatorium Rd and Shakespeare Pl was covered and gardens replanted, the Domain and Royal Botanic Gardens still remain severed to this day. The close relationship between the Art Galllery, Domain and Woolloomooloo Wharf was also lost, however this was somewhat rectified via the construction of a land bridge as part of the construction of the Eastern Distributor in 1997-1999. The second stage of the Cahill Expressway was officially opened on 1 March 1962 . Premier Cahill, who had opened the first section of the expressway, had passed away in 1960 and it was seen fit to name the expressway after him. Thus, the Circular Quay Overhead Roadway, and its extensions, was named “Cahill Expressway”.

The Department of Main Roads’ share of the cost of construction, which was undertaken by day labour from the Council of the City of Sydney , was taken from the Sydney Harbour Bridge Account (i.e. surplus toll moneys). An amendment to the Sydney Harbour Bridge (Administration) Act 1932 was passed in 1960 to allow the use of surplus toll moneys to fund the construction of, and property acquisition for, approach expressways.

Since its opening the Cahill Expressway has played a vital role in the distribution of traffic from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the eastern and southern suburbs. With the cancellation of the Southern Expressway (F6) north of St Peters , the Cahill Expressway-South Dowling St-Southern Cross Drive complex of roads emerged as the prime north-south route. This led to severe traffic congestion in East Sydney and Darlinghurst, through which large volumes of traffic traversed residential streets to/from the Cahill Expressway, and ultimately the construction of the Eastern Distributor.

Reaffirming the Cahill Expressway as the main north-south route near the CBD was the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, which was constructed from 1987-1992 to relieve traffic congestion on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Circular Quay viaduct section of the Cahill Expressway. The southern portal of the tunnel was located in the centre of the Cahill Expressway at Conservatorium Place , and a bridge was constructed to carry the southbound lanes of the expressway over the tunnel portal. Once the Harbour Tunnel opened, in September 1992, the Circular Quay section of the expressway experienced a significant reduction in traffic volumes. This can be attributed to it being much quicker to use the Harbour Tunnel to cross the harbour, and only the Pacific Hwy or Mount St exits on the Warringah Freeway not being accessible from the Harbour Tunnel.

The significant reduction in traffic volumes (84,000 vpd in 1991 to 37,000 vpd in 1993) has led to calls to pull the structure down and redevelop the Circular Quay area, presumably to make it more appeasing to the eye. In 1994 the Keating Federal Government offered $150 million of their budget surplus to the NSW Government to pull down the Cahill Expressway and railway viaduct, as well as reconstructing the railway line in a tunnel with a new underground station at Circular Quay. Sensibly, the NSW Government rejected this offer, citing many more desperately needed items of infrastructure and other needs that should be funded well before one even considers ripping down existing infrastructure.4 The NSW Government also cited the Cahill Expressway’s role as an important detour route should the Harbour Tunnel be blocked or closed for any reason. During the first half of 2005 this issue was raised again, this time following the discovery of what was played by the media as ‘structural damage’ to the Circular Quay viaduct. There was some heated public and political hoo-hah over the issue of tearing down the Expressway, but frankly New South Wales is in a dire need of massive infrastructure spending, so how could be accept the tearing down of a piece of vital infrastructure and the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars to place the railway below ground. According to the Roads and Traffic Authority, the damage is not structural and only “some maintenance work is required”.5 This maintenance work will restore the heritage character of the 20 columns that support the viaduct over the period October 2005-early 2006. So, for now, the argument of pulling down the Circular Quay viaduct has been put to rest.

Eastern Distributor

The City of Sydney Strategic Plan of 1971 sought faster construction of roads bypassing the city, including the Eastern Distributor, and the county road corridor was subsequently gazetted in the City of Sydney Planning Scheme later that year. The Sydney Area Transportation Study (SATS) of 1974 envisaged the Eastern Distributor as a freeway/expressway in a trench, as was the DMR plans at the time, with underpasses of William St and Taylor Square . However, a review of the City of Sydney Strategic Plan that same year recommended alternative routes be investigated for the connection between Cahill Expressway and South Dowling Street , adding: “such routes should minimise the impact on the adjacent areas and the amount of property to be acquired.”6

The DMR actually commenced construction of the Eastern Distributor in 1976 but came to an abrupt halt at Stanley Street , Darlinghurst, saving inner city workers’ housing at the eleventh hour. An Urban Transport Advisory Committee (URTAC) recommendation was behind the abrupt end to construction and the DMR had to wait nearly twelve months before the Government made a decision either way. In October 1977, the Wran Government decided to put on hold construction of the Eastern Distributor, pending a further design review and citing concerns over the destruction of many inner city properties. By this time, a number of properties had been released from the County Road reservation and a dramatic scaling-down of the above-ground roadworks was looking likely.

The DMR's original proposal for the Eastern Distributor is reflected in this artists' rendition, which appeared in a 1971 edition of Main Roads.

During 1977-78 consultants undertook a study on alternatives for the Eastern Distributor, assessing approximately thirty schemes for improvements to north-south traffic flow. These schemes ranged from low cost traffic management to major roadworks but they key recommendation was still that “if significant improvements are to be made to vehicular movement and the environment, major roadworks should be constructed.”7

Another review of the City of Sydney Strategic Plan in 1980 recommended “early construction of the Eastern Distributor to restrict through traffic in residential areas of East Sydney and Surry Hills” and “on the basis of traffic demand, construction of the Eastern Distributor should start immediately.”8 Despite these recommendations, a lack of governmental support at the state level continued to stall the project.

A new proposal, subject to an Environmental Impact Statement during 1984/85, was announced by the Minister for Roads, Laurie Brereton, in April 1985. The proposed route would be constructed largely below ground and the air space offered for redevelopment, including housing. Construction was to take place in three stages: - “Stage 1, costing $6 million, provides for a two-lane underpass from Palmer Street beneath William St with the realignment of Stanley St between Palmer and Bourke Streets, provision of an additional lane in Flinders St and the widening of Bourke St at Taylor Square. Stage 2, costing $77 million, consists of a two-lane tunnel for southbound traffic from just north of William St to South Dowling St, Anzac Parade and Moore Park Rd. The Cahill Expressway intersection with Sir John Young Crescent will be realigned with an underpass at Cowper Wharf Road . Included in Stage 3, costing $33 million, is the tunnel for northbound traffic from Flinders St to William St underpass.” The whole project was to be completed by December 1992; however Stage 1 - the southbound underpass of William St - was the only section to have been built. Construction commenced on it in June 1986 and it was opened to traffic in December 1987. Rapidly escalating costs - the cost of the Eastern Distributor had risen from $70 million in April 1985 to $123 million in the 1985/86 DMR Annual Report - again stalled the project.

Heavy traffic plagued Crown Street, Darlinghurst, even in the 1970s. (DMR)

In 1994 the Government was again serious about construction of the Eastern Distributor and a study showed there was widespread support for a freeway and a willingness for motorists to pay a small toll. However, the study also uncovered considerable resistance to a toll as low as $1.50 (which was the maximum toll price used in the survey, as no-one thought such a short length of freeway could be tolled any higher), let alone the $3 with which the Eastern Distributor eventually opened. Consequently, in May 1994, the private sector was invited to submit proposals to construct, operate and maintain the Eastern Distributor.

A change of Government occurred in March 1995 and the incoming Carr Government promised construction of a toll-free Eastern Distributor. However, this promise was reneged on and in August 1996 Airport Motorway Limited (AML) was officially endorsed by the Government as the preferred proponent of the Eastern Distributor project. “AML is a private consortium consisting of Leighton Contractors (the builders) and Macquarie Bank (the financiers).”9 The AML proposal was considered likely to generate enough income to fund all the works from the Cahill Expressway to Moore Park, including the upgrading of South Dowling Street, as well as adding an extra lane in each direction to Southern Cross Dr and General Holmes Dr.

The Environmental Impact Statement for the Eastern Distributor and associated works was exhibited in November/December 1996 and included about $140 million worth of improvements which the RTA had added to the original AML proposal. Planning approval, subject to 151 conditions, was granted by the Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning in June 1997.

Construction commenced in August 1997 with a scheduled completion date of August 2000 and a cost of $700 million, nearly ten times the cost of the Brereton proposal from April 1985. The 1.7km long tunnel’s design is quite unusual, being 24.5m wide at its widest point - the widest tunnel in the world - and 14m deep, constructed in the ‘piggyback’ style (i.e. with two levels, the upper level carrying northbound traffic and the lower level carrying southbound traffic). The need to accommodate three lanes of traffic in both directions, within existing road corridors, meant that the piggyback design was the only option. However, due to problems inherent with the design, it was one of only three of its type in the world at the time of construction.

The main tunnel begins at Palmer St , just north of Cathedral St, and travels underneath Bourke St and Flinders St, emerging in a trench in the centre of South Dowling Street , just south of Drivers Triangle. The southbound carriageway of South Dowling St was relocated several metres to the east, accommodating a four-lane trench in the centre of the street. This trench forms part of the Eastern Distributor and has short tunnels under Cleveland St and Dacey Ave/Todman Ave.

Stage 1, which consisted of the main tunnel and the South Dowling Street works, was officially opened on 19 December 1999 . The opening of this stage made a noticeable difference to traffic conditions between the Cahill Expressway and Southern Cross Drive, with motorists now able to bypass 17 sets of traffic lights and the severe congestion that had plagued the Darlinghurst and East Sydney areas for many years. The William Street off-ramp and Bourke St on-ramp, which completed the project, were opened to traffic in June 2000. The seven-month delay was necessitated by the need to keep the William St underpass, which now forms part of the Bourke St ramp, open to traffic until the opening of the Eastern Distributor main tunnels.

AML owns and operates the Eastern Distributor, with licence to charge a toll, until 2048 (i.e. 50 years from full opening). The tolling period was originally only to have been 40 years (i.e. would have expired in 2038), however it was extended to cover the cost of the $140 million worth of environmental improvements added to the project by the RTA.

Following opening of the tunnel, a number of changes were made to surface streets in the East Sydney/Darlinghurst area, primarily to discourage through traffic (which should use the eastern Distributor) and improve safety and accessibility for local pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. These changes include:

  • Conversion of Crown Street to two-way traffic (formerly one-way northbound only)
  • Conversion of Bourke St to two-way traffic and closure of Bourke St at Taylor Square and north of the Eastern Distributor on-ramp
  • Conversion of Palmer St to two-way traffic (formerly one-way southbound only, north of William St )
  • Closure of access to Oxford St/Flinders St at Taylor Square and the creation of pedestrian malls

Unlike the case of the Cross City Tunnel, there was little public opposition to the surface changes, instead there was widespread support.

What there has been public uproar over, however, to damage caused to properties surrounding the Eastern Distributor tunnel and the South Dowling Street works. Since 1999, residents have reported a variety of damage including small to medium-sized cracks in multiple rooms of their homes, warped doorframes, crumbling steps and built in wardrobes separating from the wall. Leighton Contractors took on the Eastern Distributor project under conditions imposed by the Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning, one of which stated that “All affected property shall be fully restored to at least the condition it was in prior to disturbance at no cost to the owner(s).”10

The owners of one of the worst affected houses got Leighton to repair major internal wall cracks in October 2000, only to find that one week after the repair work was completed new cracks were appearing on the same walls!

Due to the growing number of affected properties and the lack of an adequate response from Leighton, the Eastern Distributor Community Coalition was formed by about 50 affected residents in June 2001 to try and bring public attention to the problems of damaged homes in East and South Sydney .

Unfortunately it doesn’t appear to have achieved a lot, from what I can gather. It has been reported that a number of property owners have settled simply end the saga, and others feel the compensation and repair process has been deliberately prolonged in order to exhaust them into accepting inadequate compensation.11 I won’t go into the details on this page, but those interested can read three reports on the topic from the following links: (June 2001) (November 2002) (October 2003)

Eastern Freeway (includes Bondi Junction bypass)

By now you are probably wondering: “What happened to the Eastern Freeway?” The outermost section of the F7 was to be constructed as an extension of the Cahill Expressway and Eastern Distributor, and since the Eastern Distributor was completed only in 2000, one could argue that its time never came. One could also argue that, with the widening of Oxford Street to six and seven lanes, and the availability of two alternatives for traffic through Paddington, it was never needed. In fact, it was cancelled before it ever got off the ground.

A 1963 report on options for the construction of the Eastern Suburbs Railway gave consideration to the construction of a joint expressway-railway facility along the Eastern Freeway corridor, estimating that this would effect a reduction in capital costs (presumably relative to the construction of a railway and an expressway as separate entities). It was recommended that an independent railway be adopted rather than a joint facility because the cost of joint construction would be so high that work could be delayed unacceptably.

Whilst there is little doubt that the Department of Main Roads had prepared detailed plans for the Eastern Freeway, these were never released to the public. There was a growing opposition to inner urban freeway construction and this led, via a Cabinet sub-committee recommendation, to the abandonment of work on the Eastern Freeway in February 1977. Furthermore, the Minister for Transport and Highways announced, in regards to the Eastern Freeway, that:

“the corridor will reservation from Taylor Square to Old South Head Rd at Bellevue Hill will be eliminated with exception of requirements for the Bondi Junction bypass road and for a suitable grade-separated interchange at Taylor Square and road improvement works in the Taylor Square-Dowling Street area.”12

As the Eastern Distributor was much later constructed as a tunnel, the Bondi Junction bypass became the only section of the Eastern Freeway to ever see the light of day. Planned commercial and governmental redevelopment of Bondi Junction town centre led to the establishment of the Bondi Junction Planning Committee to plan for Bondi Junction’s changing transport needs. The Committee’s plans included a bus/rail interchange (including construction of the Eastern Suburbs Railway), redevelopment of the commercial centre and a By-pass of the commercial centre for through traffic via a major road to north. By 1977 Oxford Street , which was the major route through Bondi Junction, was carrying upwards of 24,000 vpd while Edgecliff Rd , a local road used as an alternative by through traffic to bypass the centre of Bondi Junction, was carrying 20,000 vpd. Alternatives to the bypass, such as widening Oxford St and/or Edgecliff Rd , were unacceptable both economically and because of disruption to the commercial and social life of the community.

Whilst property acquisition costing $8.5 million (1977 prices) had been ongoing for a number of years, the decision to proceed with construction of the bypass was not made until November 1976. This left a little over two years to have the bypass completed in time for opening of the Eastern Suburbs Railway and the associated bus/rail interchange in early 1979. A direction from the Minister for Transport and Highways to proceed with the construction of the bypass had previously been made in March 1976, however construction had halted before it could really begin while the Eastern Suburbs Railway Board of Review reported on the need for the bypass. The following is an extract from the Report of the Eastern Suburbs Railway Board of Review, released on 11 November 1976 :

“The Department of Main Roads is currently of the opinion that the bypass road should be completed whether the Eastern Suburbs Railway proceeds or not, with the provisio that a surface (as distinct from elevated) road might be found to be adequate if the railway were not to proceed.

“Local councils and others have also put forward the view that the bypass road should be completed. Reasons for the view include the extent of commitments entered into with local authorities, the degree to which planning has rested on the proposals and the necessity to restore some dignity to the environment and large areas which have been made derelict to make way for it.

“The Board shares the unanimous view of these authorities and others that the road should be constructed as early as practicable.

“The Board notes that some $5.5 million of the estimated cost could be saved if the road were to be constructed at surface level instead of being elevated. This would, of course, require traffic light controlled intersections which would appear to be undesirable in a relatively short length of road which in any case would still be costing some $12 million.”13

Thus, pre-construction activities such as demolition of acquired property and the relocation of utilities were recommenced as soon as possible following the Government’s adoption of the Board’s recommendations.

The bypass deviates from Oxford Street at Ocean Street (from where there was a six lane roadway to the CBD) and then proceeds easterly along the north side of Bondi Junction, hugging the northern side of Grafton Street . It is elevated for 453m of its 1300m length, and the viaduct structure was built as a continuous concrete plank bridge. At-grade intersections at either end provide the only vehicular access to the bypass. Originally designed with two 3.7m-wide lanes and a 3.0m left shoulder in each direction, upon opening the bypass was striped for three traffic lanes in each direction and has remained this way.

Construction was completed swiftly and the Bondi Junction Bypass was opened to traffic on 9 January 1979 . The Eastern Suburbs Railway Line, which was integrated heavily with the Bondi Junction bypass project, was opened to traffic on 23 June 1979 and consequently a number of traffic changes were made in the vicinity of Oxford Street . These included the closure of Oxford St between Newland St and Bronte Rd , and its transformation into a pedestrian mall, the transformation of Oxford St between Bronte Rd and Adelaide St into a bus-only roadway and the closure of Bronte Rd between Spring St and Oxford St to all traffic except buses.

As a tribute to local politician, and former Deputy Premier of New South Wales, Syd Einfeld, the Bondi Junction Bypass was renamed “Syd Einfeld Drive” on 5 February 1988.

1. Department of Main Roads; The Roadmakers: A History of Main Roads in New South Wales
2. Accessed: 30 December 2005
3. Accessed: 30 December 2005
4. Accessed: 30 December 2005
5. Accessed: 30 December 2005
6. Department of Main Roads; Eastern Distributor, City of Sydney , Environmental Impact Statement ; August 1985; p.7
7. Department of Main Roads; Eastern Distributor, City of Sydney , Environmental Impact Statement ; August 1985; p.7
8. Department of Main Roads; Eastern Distributor, City of Sydney , Environmental Impact Statement ; August 1985; p.7
9. Lachlan Sims; Eastern Distributor [Online]; Available from: Accessed: 8 May 2003
10. Accessed: 29 December 2005
11. Accessed: 29 December 2005
12. Department of Main Roads; Main Roads Vol. 42 No. 4; June 1977; p.98
13. Eastern Suburbs Railway Board of Review; Report of the Eastern Suburbs Railway Board of Review; 1976; p.15

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