M5 South Western Motorway: History and Development

The M5 is the first of the County of Cumberland Planning Scheme freeways to be completed to its original length, quite surprising considering proper construction did not begin until the late 1980s. It connects General Holmes Drive at Kyeemagh with the Hume Highway at Prestons, forming the major part of the commuter route from Campbelltown to the CBD. It closely parallels the East Hills Railway line for its entire journey, thus making it no coincidence that the railway line in question had a fall in patronage following the completion of the motorway.

This history section is devoted to the M5 South Western Motorway from Kyeemagh to Prestons. For information and photos on the Department of Main Roads’ F5 – South Western Freeway (now part of the Hume Highway) please see the Hume Highway page.

The motorway is owned and operated as a toll road by Interlink Roads between Heathcote Road and King Georges Road, as well as the Casula Bypass. The state owns the Liverpool Bridge and the M5 East section.



A corridor for the F5 – South Western Freeway was provided for in the County of Cumberland Planning Scheme 1951 as the major radial route for the south-western suburbs. Further planning by the Department of Main Roads in the 1950s saw the extension of the reservation outside of the County of Cumberland as far as Aylmerton, near Mittagong. The Department of Main Roads had this to say about the proposed F5 Freeway:

"The planned route of the F5 South Western Freeway extends from the proposed F6 - Southern Freeway at Tempe, in a generally westerly direction to the Cross Roads near Liverpool and thence in a southerly direction through semi-rural areas via Campbelltown, Menangle and Douglas Park towards Mittagong."1

Construction of the freeway is separated into three distinct sections: the M5 East; from King Georges Rd to Prestons; and from Prestons to Mittagong. The latter is not covered in this article, rather it is covered under the Hume Highway section.


M5 West
(Beverly Hills to Prestons)

Plans for construction remained on the backburner for many years as a number of smaller projects, such as the widening of the Hume Highway to six lanes through Liverpool/Casula and the replacement of Milperra Bridge, relieved congestion enough to somewhat ameliorate the need for a freeway in the short term. Despite strong recommendations from the Department of Main Roads that the western section of freeway be given priority over that section east of King Georges Road, a Commission of Inquiry (the Kirby Inquiry) were “not persuaded that congestion (either at present or in the future) creates the urgency west of King Georges Road.”2

Disregarding the recommendation of the Kirby Inquiry, and with limited funds, the Department of Main Roads took early action soon afterwards by constructing a four lane bridge across the Georges River and two-lane, two-way single carriageway road between the Hume Highway and Heathcote Road. This road, opened in February 1985, was constructed as one carriageway of an ultimate six-lane dual carriageway freeway between Prestons and Alexandria.

In July 1986 tenders were called for the construction of the freeway from Moorebank to Padstow, including duplication of the existing road, however, a change in funding availability meant this project was postponed indefinitely. A change of government in 1988 resulted in a ressurection of the project, with the government considering private sector funding for the project. In 1988 an Environmental Impact Statement was exhibited and the Commissioner of Main Roads decided to adopt the proposal between Heathcote Road and Fairford Road and proceed with construction of that section. A decision on the section of freeway east of Fairford Rd to King Georges Rd was deferred pending further review. Then, in February 1991, the Chief Executive Officer of the RTA issued a determination to construct the Fairford Rd to King Georges Rd section as a two-lane, two-way single carriageway road. Also in February 1991 a second EIS was released regarding the location of the toll plaza. In August 1991 the decision was made to locate the toll plaza to the immediate west of the Georges River.

In May 1989 the Roads and Traffic Authority called for offers from the private sector construct and operate the F5 South Western Freeway as a toll road between Heathcote Road and King Georges Road. Interlink Roads was chosen as the preferred bidder and signed a contract that enabled them to build, own and operate a toll road in the South Western Freeway reservation between Heathcote Rd and King Georges Rd until September 2023 (i.e. approximately 30 years from full opening) when it would be transferred to state ownership. Interlink Roads were also commissioned to construct the Casula Bypass although they would not have the right to toll that section of motorway.

The first stage of the M5 South Western Motorway was opened to traffic in August 1992, between Heathcote Road and Fairford Road, with a $1.50 toll. This section also included the duplication of the existing ‘freeway’ between the Hume Highway and Heathcote Road, except for the Liverpool Bridge which remained three lanes wide. In October 1992 Interlink Roads opened the super-2 expressway section between Fairford Road and King Georges Road, raising the toll to $2. As at October 1992 access to/from the motorway was provided at Hume Highway (western terminus, signalised intersection), Moorebank Ave (signalised intersection), Heathcote Rd (no eastbound offramp yet), Henry Lawson Dr (full diamond interchange), The River Road (west-facing half diamond), Fairford Rd (same) and Belmore Rd (same).

In January 1993 the Roads and Traffic Authority exhibited an Environmental Impact Statement for the Casula Bypass and Interlink Roads commenced construction soon afterwards. This 4km section of freeway was a godsend, allowing traffic to bypass the notorious Cross Roads intersection at Casula. The Casula Bypass was opened to traffic in June 1994, along with the eastbound offramp at the Heathcote Road interchange. East-facing ramps were provided at the Hume Highway junction near the Georges River and a reservation still exists for the construction of an eastbound offramp.

The state-owned section of ‘freeway’ between Hume Highway and Moorebank Ave soon proved to be a massive bottleneck. The signalised at-grade intersection at Moorebank Ave combined with the three-lane Liverpool Bridge (which operated as a tidal flow system - 2 lanes eastbound in the Am peak and 2 lanes westbound in the PM peak) in the middle of a four-lane motorway resulted in many a delay. Thus, the Roads and Traffic Authority constructed a duplicate bridge over the Georges River to provide seven lane (four eastbound and three westbound) during the mid-to-late 1990s.

As part of the M5 East project the super-2 section of motorway between Fairford Road and King Georges Road was duplicated and east-facing ramps with toll collection facilities were constructed at Fairford Rd and The River Road. The River Road ramps were opened in May 1999 and the duplication and Fairford Rd ramps were opened in August 1999. This work provided a much more accessible motorway.

Following the opening of the M5 East, the RTA commenced work on replacing the at-grade signalised intersection at Moorebank Avenue. The traffic lights were officially switched off on the 7th of December 2002 although work was not completed until January 2003. This $31 million project was partially funded by a 16 month extension to the operating contract. The new transfer date has been set at January 2025.


M5 East
(Beverly Hills to Kyeemagh)

Planning and construction of the M5 East is closely linked to operations at Port Botany and another County of Cumberland Planning Scheme route, the Cooks River County Road, between Kyeemagh and Chullora. In the February 1976 report of the Urban Transport Advisory Council it was noted that: “At the present time there is no single, clearly defined route that parallels [the Cooks River County Road]. Instead, traffic filters through local streets in Ashfield, Canterbury and Marrickville municipalities.” And “In view of the importance of providing adequate land transport links for traffic associated with the Kingsford Smith Airport and the Botany Bay Port Development and the surrounding industrial area, a start be made forthwith on the planned County Road link between Kyeemagh and Chullora.”3 URTAC proposed that construction commence in 1979/80 with a view to completion in 1985/86, however the Government did not adopt their recommendation, instead commissioning further analysis of route options. In 1980 a Commission of Inquiry into possible transport improvements between Kyeemagh and Chullora was released. The South Western Freeway option considered by the Inquiry involved the construction of a four-lane undivided road between King Georges Road and General Holmes Drive on what would ultimately become one carriageway of a full freeway standard road. Several alignment alternatives were considered before a preferred alignment on the southern side of Wolli Creek valley was chosen. The Inquiry recommended against the freeway option because of the perceived negative environmental impacts of the route on the Wolli Creek valley, including displacement (113 to 158 houses would need to be demolished4), severance, noise, ecological and open space concerns. Thus, the project stalled.

The Department of Main Roads recommenced public consultation in 1986 and, as a result of representations received, the State Government announced in August 1988 that part of the County Road reservation for the South Western Freeway traversing the Wolli Creek valley would be lifted and that the Roads and Traffic Authority would undertake a formal programme of consultation on the alternatives available for future roadworks in the area.5 Extensive public consultation was undertaken by the Department of Main Roads and a preferred alignment was chosen. As well, a scheme involving a tunnel, which had a great deal of community support, was presented for consideration.

Consequently, an Environmental Impact Statement was prepared and exhibited in July 1989, showcasing the preferred option as a six-lane surface freeway, generally in the existing County Road reservations between King Georges Road and Euston Rd, St Peters, but with a more southerly alignment through Turrella and across the Cooks River. The freeway would also be located slightly to the east to avoid remnants of the former shoreline of Botany Bay which have been exposed on the eastern side of a quarry at St Peters. The Environmental Impact Statement also proposed construction could commence in January 1990 and be completed in the two stages by the end of 1994, subject to funding. While the community recognised and accepted the need for road improvements there was still strong opposition to any proposal for a freeway. While the EIS presented a surface route as the preferred option, two tunnel alternatives were considered and it also noted that, if tunnels were constructed, they should be twin two-lane tunnels on the short tunnel alignment (Bexley North to Turrella). The EIS had this to say regarding the preferred scheme:

“After consideration of the issues raised, the Roads and Traffic Authority’s preferred scheme for assessment in this Environmental Impact Statement is Option B8, which locates a proposed six-lane freeway in the Wolli Creek valley between Bexley North and Turrella and meets the requirements of preserving the Wolli Creek bushland while minimising social dislocation. The area within which a proposed freeway could be located extends from the northern side of the railway to the southern boundary of the recently released part of the County Road reservation. This allows sufficient space to accommodate a six-lane freeway and some increase in the capacity of the rail network.”6

“The opportunity exists to link the proposed freeway with the Pyrmont to Alexandria traffic management proposal. The combined route of Euston Rd and McEvoy St was considered the most suitable for this purpose while also providing numerous north-west/south-east connections to the existing road network. For example, Huntley Street, Maddox St, Harley St, Bowden St and Fountain St would all provide access to the adjoining network. A signalised intersection at Campbell Rd and associated extension and widening would also provide important access to the suburbs to the north-west and south-east of the proposed freeway.”7

Still not happy with the preferred scheme, the Roads and Traffic Authority undertook a ‘Review of the Kyeemagh-Chullora Road Inquiry 1980 for M5 East Expressway’ during 1993 which examined the relevance of the recommendations of the Kirby Inquiry. A previous review, in June 1987, acknowledged that between 1980 and 1985 port operations within Sydney had altered such that some of the recommendations of Kirby Inquiry were no longer relevant. Thus, the Roads and Traffic Authority provided the following justification for a proposed southern alignment, terminating at General Holmes Drive , Kyeemagh.

“Recommendation 1: ‘the southern alignment (terminating at General Holmes Drive, Kyeemagh) is unsatisfactory. It should not be pursued’ for the following reasons:
1. A northern alignment would provide better access to and from the Central Industrial Area and Port Botany
Comment (1993): Current traffic modelling suggests that a link to General Holmes Drive would improve heavy vehicle access to and from Port Botany.
2. A southern alignment would aggravate congestion within the tunnel beneath the Airport.
Comment (1993): Construction of a southern terminus will necessitate the upgrade of the tunnel. A study is presently underway by the Roads and Traffic Authority to consider ways of increasing the capacity of the tunnel. Any upgrade is likely to comprise the addition of two extra lanes in conjunction with a tidal flow arrangement.”8

In April 1993 the Roads and Traffic Authority engaged Manidis Roberts Consultants to prepare another Environmental Impact Statement, this time for construction of a motorway standard road between Fairford Road and Botany/Mascot. While the Kirby Commission of Inquiry recommended against the adoption of a south western freeway option, the RTA claimed this proposal differs from the proposal upon which the recommendations were based as this intended as a transport link to Liverpool/Campbelltown rather than to Chullora.

The Environmental Impact Statement was released in June 1994 with a new preferred option – that of a four-lane toll road, connecting to General Holmes Drive at Kyeemagh. Twin two-lane tunnels would carry the motorway below the Wolli Creek valley (Bexley Road to Turrella Railway Station) and a viaduct would carry the motorway over two railway lines, the Princes Highway at West Botany Street, and Marsh Street. No interchange would be provided at Kingsgrove Road, and toll plaza would be located near the south end of Garema Circuit, Armitree Street and Glamis Street. The southern alignment (connecting to General Holmes Drive at Kyeemagh) was preferred because it would:
- Provide the most direct link to Port Botany, the focus of most large commercial vehicles;
- Link well into the emerging strategic road network, including General Holmes Drive, Foreshore Drive and Southern Cross Drive, which are all of appropriate standard and directly link to major destinations;
- Form part of an orbital route for Sydney which can be developed into a ring road of appropriate environmental standard, which supports economic development in Sydney.9

Following extensive community submissions10, particularly in regard to the proposed viaduct at Arncliffe, a supplement to the EIS was exhibited in December 1996. The supplement proposed significant changes including:
- Four-lane, 13.2km long, motorway standard road with limited access, between Fairford Road, Padstow and General Holmes Drive, Kyeemagh. The surface road will generally have 3.5m wide lanes, with an outer shoulder of 2.5-3.5m and an inner shoulder of 1m;
- Ramps to and from the east at Fairford Road would be opened to traffic. Toll collection facilities would be located on these ramps. However, there will be no toll between King Georges Road and General Holmes Drive;
- The motorway would pass over King Georges Road, rather than under, with pedestrian access under the motorway;
- Former toll plaza would become an enforcement/inspection area
- Twin two-lane tunnels would be constructed between Bexley Road and Marsh Street. Tunnel lanes would be 3.5m wide. There would be no breakdown lanes, but breakdown lanes would be provided at 1km intervals. The tunnel would be up to 80m deep and 4km long.
- It would cross the Cooks River on a bridge.
- An additional traffic lane in each direction would be provided in the Airport Tunnel by re-marking the road.11

In response to various concerns raised by the public during the exhibition of the Environmental Impact Statement supplement, the Roads and Traffic Authority proposed future modifications. These include an underpass at King Georges Road, new ramps at Kingsgrove Road, changes to interchange layout at Princes Hwy/West Botany Street/Marsh St, alignment changes between Marsh Street and Cooks River, a tunnel rather than a bridge crossing of the Cooks River.

One major concern raised by many public representations was that many people purchased properties in Bardwell Park and Arncliffe at a higher price specifically to be away from the road reservation. Approximately two-thirds of representations received requested that the proposal be placed back under the Wolli Creek road reservation. Consequently, the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning undertook a review of the EIS supplement in November 1997 which resulted in the M5 East project receiving planning approval.

Construction was commenced at the Fairford Road end in September 1997 and duplication of the existing motorway between Fairford Road and King Georges Road, and the construction of east-facing ramps at Fairford Rd, was completed in August 1999. The M5 East Motorway project was officially opened on 9 December 2001 and opened to traffic the next day.


The Future

Interlink Roads’ operating contract is set to expire in January 2025 (by which time we will all be driving flying cars), when the motorway will be returned to state ownership. Currently the M5 Motorway (tolled section) carries approximately 110,000 vehicles per day, making it the most heavily trafficked road in New South Wales. The RTA refuses to release official traffic volumes for the M5 East, although the Sydney Morning Herald has claimed that 105,000 vehicles per day use the M5 East, making the RTA look ridiculous after the EIS claimed only 55,000 vpd would be using the M5 East by 2011. The removal of the proposed toll and the addition of ramps at Kingsgrove Road on the M5 East have all contributed to much higher traffic volumes than the EIS anticipated. Some have called the bypass or duplicate the already overcrowded four-lane, 4km tunnel although no firm proposals have been released. Proposals to widen the Airport Tunnel to ten lanes as part of any expansion of Sydney Airport have received strong support and will probably go ahead, reducing traffic congestion at the M5’s eastern terminus in the short term.

1. Department of Main Roads; South Western Freeway F5 from The Cross Roads near Liverpool to Aylmerton near Mittagong; 1980; p.2
2. Roads and Traffic Authority; Review of the Kyeemagh-Chullora Road Inquiry 1980 for M5 East Expressway; March 1994
3. NSW Department of Main Roads and the Planning and Environment Commission; Report on the Kyeemagh-Chullora Route Study; May 1979; p.1-2
4. Roads and Traffic Authority; South Western (F5) Freeway: Alexandria-Beverly Hills Environmental Impact Statement; July 1989; p.3-21
5. Roads and Traffic Authority; South Western (F5) Freeway: Alexandria-Beverly Hills Environmental Impact Statement; July 1989; p.3-21
6. Roads and Traffic Authority; South Western (F5) Freeway: Alexandria-Beverly Hills Environmental Impact Statement; July 1989; p4-28
7. Roads and Traffic Authority; South Western (F5) Freeway: Alexandria-Beverly Hills Environmental Impact Statement; July 1989; p4-28
8. Roads and Traffic Authority; Review of the Kyeemagh-Chullora Road Inquiry 1980 for M5 East Expressway; March 1994
9. Roads and Traffic Authority; Proposed M5 East Motorway: Fairford Road to General Holmes Drive Environmental Impact Statement; June 1994; p. XXXVI
10. The EIS quotes that over 8000 community submissions were received.
11. Department of Urban Affairs and Planning; Proposed M5 East Motorway: Fairford Road to General Holmes Drive , Kyeemagh: Director General’s Report: Vol. 2; November 1997

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