Pacific Highway - History and Development


Settlement on the coast north of Newcastle was focused on sea transport as it was traditionally the quickest form of communication with Sydney. The wide rivers surrounded by rugged mountain ranges made the construction of roads very difficult and where possible the rivers became the major avenues of transportation. It was not until 1909 that a continuous route, similar to the Pacific Highway, was available between Hexham and Tweed Heads and even then there were few bridges over the rivers – crossings being made by ferries. The last section of the highway was that between South Grafton and Harwood, via Ulmarra and Maclean, probably because it ran alongside the Clarence River which was a major shipping route. When motor vehicles came into general use following World War 1, many miles of the main North Coast road consisted only of earth formation, creating a dust nuisance in dry weather and quagmires in wet weather. The construction of the North Coast Railway between 1911 and 1923 also retarded early development of the Pacific Highway.

On 7 August 1928 the newly-formed Main Roads Board proclaimed the main North Coast road, running from Hexham through Gloucester, Taree, Port Macquarie, Kempsey, Macksville, Nambucca Heads, Coffs Harbour, South Grafton, Maclean, Woodburn, Ballina, Bangalow, Byron Bay, Mullumbimby, and Murwillumbah to Tweed Heads, State Highway No. 10 and named it ‘North Coast Highway’. The Highway was renamed ‘Pacific Highway’ on 29 May 1931, following Queensland naming their section of the Brisbane-Sydney coastal route Pacific Hwy, and it was extended south from Hexham to North Sydney. The section south of Hexham was previously part of State Highway No. 9 – Great Northern (now New England) Highway.

When it was established in 1925, the Main Roads Board’s policy was to ensure that the correct locations for routes were determined. This involved deferring the building of bituminous pavements on sections of road requiring extensive deviation and realignment, and the continued maintenance of these sections with gravel surfaces, pending such reconstruction. Concurrently with the relocation of many sections of the road, a vigorous campaign was undertaken to improve existing surfaces on lengths of road which did not require relocation, including the provision of dust-free surfaces, particularly in and near towns and through areas having intense agricultural settlement.

Three major deviations were constructed on the North Coast during this initial period of development for the highway. The first, which was gazetted on 29 May 1931 , altered the route of the highway between Bangalow and Ewingsdale. The original route had followed Bangalow Rd into Byron Bay and then Ewingsdale Rd to Ewingsdale, a circuitous 19km route with three railway level crossings. The new route was only 9km in length and descended the St Helena ridgeline spur, rejoining the original highway alignment at Ewingsdale. The second deviation came immediately following World War 2 when, on 9 March 1945 the route of the highway was altered again - this time following what had been constructed as Main Road No. 144 through Brunswick Heads. The original route via Mullumbimby and Coolamon Scenic Drive was decommissioned and reproclaimed as Main Road No. 524. Further north, the 6km Fernvale Deviation was opened to traffic in 1954. This section replaced a circuitous route through Stokes Siding and Dunbible and had much easier grades.

The biggest alignment change came on 10 August 1952 when the section of highway between 12 Mile Creek and Purfleet (4km south of Taree), now known as the Bucketts Way, was decommissioned and, in its place, a new route was declared, passing through Karuah, Bulahdelah, Wootton, Coolongolook and Nabiac. The new route was chosen as it presented a marked improvement in topographical conditions and served areas distant from the railway. This marked the beginning of a vigorous eleven year programme of construction by the Department of Main Roads to bring the new route of the Pacific Highway up to scratch. Due to the poor quality of existing roads between 12 Mile Creek and Bulahdelah, and the need to bridge the Karuah River, the Department decided to seal the Booral-Bulahdelah road and use it as an interim route for highway traffic until construction of the new line could be completed. Between Bulahdelah and Wang Wauk an unsealed road had been constructed through O’Sullivan’s Gap as a developmental road in 1940 and north of Nabiac and existing sealed road led to the Pacific Hwy at Purfleet.

The DMR immediately began a sealing program for both the Booral-Bulahdelah road and the new Pacific Highway between Bulahdelah and Wang Wauk. Both roads were fully sealed in December 1955, with only minor improvements needed to the road through O’Sullivan’s Gap. Construction then proceeded north, reconstruction and sealing as far as Purfleet was completed in April 1958. A steel truss bridge over the Karuah River at Karuah was opened in December 1957, and a steel truss bridge over the Wallamba River at Nabiac followed in February 1959, replacing a causeway crossing built in 1940. By 1960 the Department had completed construction south of Karuah but it would be three more years before extensive reconstruction between Karuah and Bulahdelah was completed. The new Pacific Highway was officially opened on 24 December 1963, in time for Christmas holiday traffic.

Three years later, in August 1966 the Department decommissioned the last ferry on the Pacific Highway. The Harwood Bridge over the South Arm of the Clarence River not only replaced the last ferry on the Pacific Highway but was the last steel bridge built by the Department of Main Roads and was an integral part of a 6km bypass of Maclean. Two years earlier, in April 1964, a bridge was opened across the Richmond River at Wardell, replacing Burns Point Ferry, the second last on the Pacific Highway. Bridge building on the Pacific Highway was not a new concept; it was something that was first begun as unemployment relief in the Great Depression. These essential public works not only vastly improved travelling conditions on the Highway, but eased the pain of unemployment in rural area. The Boyds Bay Bridge over Terranora Creek and Barney’s Point Bridge over the Tweed River were both constructed in the mid 30s to link the railheads at Murwillumbah and Tweed Heads. Other major bridges constructed during the Depression include those across the Manning River at Taree (1938), the Dawson River at Taree (1933), the Lansdowne River at Coopernook (1938), the Nambucca River at Macksville (1931), the Bellinger River at Raleigh (1935) and the Clarence River North Arm at Mororo (1936). Bridge building slowed after the Depression, firstly due to war and then the post-war shortages of materials and labour. Steel was still the material of choice for larger bridges and several major steel truss bridges were opened – including those across the Karuah River at Karuah (1957), the Wallamba River at Nabiac (1959), the Macleay River at Kempsey (1959) and the Hastings River near Port Macquarie (1961), before the DMR stopped making steel bridges in 1966. One of the last major works of the 1960s was a deviation around Grahamstown Dam, necessitated by the expansion of the dam which placed the old alignment underwater. The Highway was relocated onto higher ground a few hundred metres to the west and the deviation was opened to traffic in December 1968.

In the early part of the 1970s, major bridges were constructed across Warrell Creek (1971), the Kalang River at Urunga (1972), the Wilson River at Telegraph Point (1974) and Newee Creek (1974). However, work on the Highway slowed dramatically after 1974 as a consequence of a restructure of Federal roads funding. The National Roads Act 1974 provided for the declaration of National Highway links between each capital city, as well as Burnie and Cairns, which would be 100% funded by the Commonwealth Government. This meant the Commonwealth took a more active role in road planning as it dictated which roads would have federal money spent on them, rather than the old system of the states submitting proposals to the Commonwealth. The New England Highway was chosen over the Pacific Highway as the Hexham-QLD section of the Sydney-Brisbane link, a smart decision which would see dramatic improvement in travelling conditions on the inland route, making it more attractive for truck traffic.

A large number of earlier works on the Pacific Highway had been built using Federal funds but now the Pacific Highway received no Federal money and work slowed significantly. With limited funds from the State Treasury the Department of Main Roads made improvements to the Highway where they could, most notably being a large number of smallish realignments during the 1980s including those at Cooperabung Range, Kundabung, Eungai Creek, Woolgoolga, Dirty Creek Range, Chatsworth, Ballina and Tyagarah. Only a small number of larger projects could be completed during this time and they included a bypass of Nambucca Heads, dual carriageways through Coffs Harbour and at Sextons Hill (near Tweed Heads) and the first stage of the Tweed Heads Bypass. However, even these projects were delayed by a lack of road funding – Stage 2 of the Tweed Heads Bypass took seven years to complete.

In the meantime, the DMR was able to learn some valuable lessons while working on the Highway. North of Kempsey the Pacific Highway traverses the Macleay River floodplain for about 20km, following a route to the north of the river that avoids the swampy ground as much as possible. However, at Clybucca Flat a 6km section of the Highway traverses an area regularly inundated by flood waters, causing severe pavement failure, expensive maintenance and major inconvenience to locals and to highway travellers when the road is closed by flood waters. A 35km deviation, the most suitable flood-free option, was ruled out because it would not service the needs of local traffic using the Highway to access Kempsey so the Department set about solving the engineering problem – the construction of a stable, long-wearing and relatively maintenance-free pavement, built on saturated silt, where the water table regularly rises to within 100mm of the surface. An innovative solution was chosen, consisting of a concrete mass base 130mm deep and 13.4 m wide and a continuously reinforced concrete pavement 230mm deep and 7.4m wide. This overcame the inability to compact the gravel road base on the silt and gave substantial seepage protection to the road base. The work was completed over twelve months, from August 1975 to August 1976. This achievement was the DMR’s most significant since the Highway was fully sealed on 2 April 1958.

In 1991 the Greiner Government identified the North Coast corridor between Hexham and the Queensland Border as one of the fastest growing areas in New South Wales. This changed the perception of the Pacific Highway – no longer was it seen as just a through route to Brisbane, it was the key to an economic region 700km long and up to 100km wide. The fragmented economy and high unemployment in this region increased the importance of the highway. Thus a five-year programme of construction was commenced, including the provision of dual carriageways at Swan Creek, between Possum Brush and Rainbow Flat, and at Herons Creek, the duplication of Mororo Bridge over the Clarence River North Arm and bypasses of Cowper and Bangalow.

The Greiner Government also commissioned a study on the road transport needs of the Hexham-QLD coast corridor, resulting in the 1993 release of a North Coast Road Strategy. The strategy assessed options for upgrading the Pacific Highway including a comparison of a ‘Motorway Pacific’ option and a ‘Pacific Highway Upgrade’ option. The Strategy found that “neither of the options would be able to provide a flood-free route. The Motorway Pacific option would, however, provide the greatest long term reduction in flooding. It would be a significant improvement over the Pacific Highway route, minimising the duration of closures and flood damage to road structures. [However], major flooding would still occur at Hexham, Taree and between Maclean and Ballina. The Strategy also found that “both options would increase truck traffic. The increase would be greater with the Motorway pacific option, which could reduce the competitiveness of the Sydney-Brisbane rail freight.”

The strategy also provided a two stage ‘Upgrade Development Strategy’ for the Pacific Highway, consisting of:
• Stage 1: Complete current 5-year programme; 11 town bypasses and 95km of new dual carriageways; replace bridges narrower than 6.8m; eliminate substandard sections (sections with a design speed of less than 85km/h) and provide four lanes on sections that carry in excess of 12,000 vpd.
• Stage 2: Duplicate the highway from Hexham to Taree, from Sawtell to Woolgoolga and from Bangalow to Tweed Heads; provide additional town bypasses, and provide overtaking lanes 5km apart between Grafton and Bangalow.

Work on upgrading the Pacific Highway in the first half of the 1990s was entirely state-funded and represented a significant investment from the Liberal Government of the time. However, it was clear that the State would not be able to the fund the full upgrade of the highway, let alone a ‘Motorway Pacific’ option, by itself within a reasonable timeframe. Thus, after some lobbying from the State Government, the Federal Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding in early 1996 to jointly fund and accelerated upgrading of the Pacific Highway. The Commonwealth funding was provided on the basis that the New South Wales government would match the federal contribution and also maintain their existing financial commitment to the highway. The Federal Government committed $600 million in funding over 10 years with the New South Wales Government agreeing to spend $1.6 billion over the same time period.

The programme was commenced in September 1996 and had converted 16% of the Highway between Hexham and QLD to dual carriageway by 1999. The programme was expected to complete dual carriageways on 60% of the Highway by 2006, a target that will not be reached.

Despite the fact that this target won't be reached, the upgrading programme has done wonderful things for travelling conditions on the highway. Black spots such as O'Sullivans Gap and Wootton Bends (bypassed in October 1999) and the Burringbar Range (bypassed August 2002) have been eliminated by new freeway-standard alignments that will serve traffic safely for a long time to come. Narrow bridges, that had necessitated trucks to call ahead so as to ensure they don't cross the bridge at the same time for fear of clipping mirrors, have largely been replaced.

In October 2004 the Roads and Traffic Authority announced a number of new planning projects that would cover the sections of the Highway not included in the original upgrade programme. These include: from the F3 to Raymond Terrace; realignment of the northbound carriageway between Failford Rd and Tritton Rd; realignment of the northbound carriageway from Herons Creek to Stills Rd; from Oxley Hwy to Kempsey; Woolgoolga to Wells Crossing; Wells Crossing to Iluka Road; Iluka Road to Woodburn; Woodburn to Ballina; and Tintenbar to Ewingsdale. These planning projects will identify how the Highway will be upgraded to ultimate standard and reserve the necessary land.

For more information on the Pacific Highway Upgrade please see the Roads and Traffic Authority’s Pacific Highway Upgrade website:

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