ADELAIDE's FREEWAYS - A History from MATS to the Port River Expressway


South Australia has less kilometres of freeways that any other Australian state capital, including Hobart. It is a city that, to an outsider like myself, seemed to pride itself on the fact that it had no urban freeways. It was a statement of superiority for South Australia in that they had manage to escape the social, environmental and economic costs of constructing freeways in established urban areas while still managing to cope with the traffic of a very car-dependent city.


First plans released for Freeways

Like every other state, South Australia was directed towards freeway development following the second world war. The move that set the ball rolling was the amendment of the Town Planning Act in 1955 that required the preparation of a plan to guide the future development of Adelaide as experts warned of the consequences of unplanned urban sprawl. Thus, the Town Planning Committee was established to create the plan.

In April 1959 Rolf Jensen, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the University of Adelaide, published a series of articles in the News "on the state of Adelaide's main highways and how they can be modernised." He emphasised the need for grade separated crossings at major junctions of the Anzac Highway. Soon afterwards several other 'experts' presented their cases for a system of freeways in Adelaide, including this very strong editorial from the News: "the urgent need now is to put planning into effect, to site the freeways, acquire the land, build them and use them before city growth outpaces the planners. The longer the delay, the more difficult and more expensive the job will become."

In November 1959 Minister for Roads, Norman Jude, unveiled plans for a freeway from Klemzig to Modbury. This was the first official plan for a freeway in South Australia however, quite why it terminated in Klemzig, without any high standard connections to the city, is beyond me. Interestingly, it appears that the Government may not have had the power to construct the planned freeway as it wasnt until October 1960 that Jude introduced a bill enabling the Government to build freeways and operate them as controlled access roads. In accordance with this legislation, part of Main North Road between Pooraka and Gawler was gazetted a limited access highway on 22 December 1960 in order "to prevent [ribbon] development and preserve the Main North Rd for its primary purpose - that of permitting a fast flow of traffic to and from the city."1

In 1962 the Town Planning Committee released its 'Report on the Metropolitan Area of Adelaide'. The report suggested: "Road widening, the improvement of intersections, more stringent access control measures and the prohibtion of kerbside parking in peak periods will be necessary to ensure a smooth traffic flow. These measures will only give temporary relief, and within a period of ten years traffic congestion may increase to such and extent that a new highways, called a freeway, will become necessary to enable large volumes of traffic to move safely and swiftly."2 The most important freeway was one "through the Metropolitan area from Gawler in the north, passing west of the City of Adelaide, to join Yankalilla Road south of Noarlunga."


Construction begins on the South Eastern Freeway

In February of the same year an American consultant was commissioned to advise the Highways Department on a proposed first section of the South Eastern Freeway. The Department had never constructed a freeway before and the concept had only recently been introduced to Australia so the American consultant brought some very valuable experience to the state. The preliminary designs were completed in May 1962 and released to the public. Some controversy erupted over the proposed first stage - from Crafers to Verdun - because the proposed route passed through Arbury Park. Opposition was found at a political level too from MP Alexander Downer - the freeway was proposed to pass by the front of his house. Downer offered to land behind his house to the Department for free but the adoption of a more northerly alignment behind Downer's house would have resulted in much higher construction costs and a greater scar on the landscape. Premier Thomas Playford listened to the opposition before meeting with the Commissioner for Highways who showed him that it was the only viable route. Downer eventually gave up the fight when he accepted a job in Port Augusta and relocated. Construction commenced in December 1965 however, due to ongoing negotiations regarding the route near Arbury Park, the first stage was limited to a 2km section from Measdays Hill to Stirling. This section consisted primarily of duplicating the existing Princes Highway, with a small deviation and grade-separated interchange constructed at Summit Road, Crafers.


Metropolitan Adelaide Transportation Study (MATS)

In December 1964 the South Australian Government announced the commencement of a two-year planning study on Adelaide's transport needs. The study was designed and conducted by a firm of consultant from the USA with input from the Highways Department. After some delay the 'Metropolitan Adelaide Transportation Study' (MATS) was released in August 1968 together with an announcement that there would be no action taken on the plan for six months to allow public comment. The report addressed two major concerns, the upgrading of the road system with the implementation of a system of freeways and expressways and the improvement of public transport. The report recommended the construction of 60 miles of freeways, 21 miles of expressways, 35 miles of new arterial roads, the widening of 240 miles of existing arterial roads, a new bridge across the Port Adelaide River and 20 rail grade-separations. The estimated cost of land acquisition and construction was $436.5 million (1968). Among the public transport recommendations were the closure of the Grange Railway Line and a $32.8 million rail subway underneath King William Street. The Noarlunga Railway Line was to be deviated between Edwardstown and Goodwood to connect to the King William Street subway.


Details of freeways proposed in MATS

The following projects were proposed in the MATS plan:

Hills Freeway:
Proposed to be part of a new route between the South Eastern Freeway (under construction at this stage) and the CBD, the route "...began in the city, curved out through College Park and St Peters, then cut a swathe through Norwood, Rose Park, Myrtle Bank and Urrbrae, slicing through Peter Waite's paddock before following the Belair Road on a new route through the Adelaide Hills."3 This new route through the hills would have roughly paralleled Sheoak and Charkicks Roads to join the Princes Highway at Crafers.

Foothills Expressway:
A connection between the North-South Freeway at Darlington and the Hills Freeway at Belair. It would have commenced near the intersection of Main South Road and Sturt Rd then headed north east alongside Fiveash Road to Goodwood Rd. From here it would have headed east to Belair Road and then north east to meet the Hills Freeway near the intersection of Old Belair Rd & Weemala Dr.

North-South Freeway:
The most important of all the freeways in the plan, extending from Main South Road just south of Old Noarlunga, bypassing Old Noarlunga and proceeding north along the current alignment of the Southern Expressway to the top of O'Halloran Hill. Then a route about 200-300m west of the current expressway would be taken down the hill, crossing Seacombe Road just west of Miller Street abd cutting a swathe through Sturt. The Tonsley Railway Line reservation would be utilised4 north to Mitchell Park where the freeway would have demolished a string of properties paralleling South and Marion Roads about midway between the two (reservation can be seen in Kurralta Park between Daly Ave and Gray St) before turning north east to utilise the old North Terrace-Glenelg Railway alignment. A massive interchange was planned at Hilton, providing access to the CBD and Airport. The freeway would turn north upon reaching South Road, paralleling this road north. A connection to North Adelaide was proposed to be constructed in the Hindmarsh area. The freeway would continue due north at Regency Road (where South Road ended at the time) before curving slightly north east through Wingfield to join the Dry Creek Expressway at the north end of Magazine Road.

Salisbury Freeway:
From the northern end of the North-South (Noarlunga) Freeway at the Dry Creek Expressway, north to the proposed Port Wakefield Expressway (Pt Wakefield Rd/Salisbury Hwy junction).

Port Freeway:
A Freeway constructed in the wide median of Port Road between Fitzroy Terrace and Old Port Road. The connection with the City Freeway and North-South Freeway at Hindmarsh would have flattened most of the (tiny) suburb.4

City Freeway:
Basically a ring road around the north and east of the CBD. Would have encroached on the parklands (in a tunnel or underneath a land bridge4) surrounding the city while following Park Tce, Robe Tce, Park Tce again (this section of the corridor has been built on as Mann Rd/Park Rd), Hackney Rd, Dequetteville Tce and Fullarton Rd - terminating at Greenhill Rd. Prior to the cancellation of the Hills Freeway this section was known as the North Adelaide Connector.

Modbury Freeway:
From the City Freeway on the north side of the River Torrens, turning north east and following what is now the O'Bahn Busway. Upon reaching Modbury, the freeway would leave the current busway alignment, this time heading due north along what is now McIntyre Road. Just north of McIntyre Road's intersection with The Golden Way the freeway would leave the McIntyre Road alignment and head north through Wynn Vale Gullies to hit Bridge Road just north of Peter Road. From there a small corridor is visible (but developed) through Salisbury Heights, joining Main North Road in the vicinity of Black Top Road.

Dry Creek Expressway:
An east-west Expressway connecting Francis Street at Port Adelaide to the Modbury Freeway via the current alignment of the Port River Expressway, thence east along Monatgue Road.

Glenelg Expressway:
A limited access route from the Noarlunga Freeway to Glenelg, utilisiung the former North Tce-Glenelg railway reservation.

Reynella Expressway:
Basically an upgrade of Main South Road between Darlington and Reynella, incorporating interchanges at Majors Road and Panalatinga Road, and the Renella Bypass.

- Duplication of the Gawler Bypass at Gawler
- Duplication of Port Wakefield Rd from the northern end of the Salisbury Freeway to Heaslip Rd

Reaction to the MATS plan

To say public reaction was unfavourable would be a massive understatement. There were fierce critics from the start, one (Michael Isaachsen - Director of Balance Research) even requesting the raw data from the Highways Department in order to make his own assessment of the need for large-scale freeway construction. Remember though, the scale of freeway construction in the MATS plan was roughly the size of Hobart and miniscule compared to other mainland states (with the exception of W.A). The Noarlunga Freeway alone would require the acquisition of as many as 3,000 properties, including 817 residential dwellings, and was planned to be elevated along much of its length. Opposition was probably greatest in regard to the Hills Expressway which would have demolished most of inner south-eastern Adelaide (hyperbole intended :p).

In August 1968 AG Flint, Superintending Engineer (Planning) of the Highways Department, hit back of the critics of MATS, warning that future requirements will surpass provisions made in the past. Flint also claimed that it is evident that "we have failed to maintain an adequate lead time in our planning with the result that other developments must be disturbed to make way for essential transport facilities."

In February 1969 the State Cabinet approved the MATS plan minus three specific proposals, pending further review:
- Diversion of the railway from Edwardstown to Goodwood
- Closure of Grange Railway Line
- Proposed Hills Freeway and Foothills Expressway
- Selected sections of the Modbury and Noarlunga Freeways and the Dry Creek Expressway

It was at this time that Isaachsen submitted his critique of the MATS plan to the Minister for Roads in which he: "put the view that the proposed freeways, if built, would be well used but the alternative path of strengthening public transport might be just as satisfactory."6 He was happy to note that, although he had no reason to believe that the Minister took any notice of his work, six months later the freeway plan was not going ahead and two years later a free city centre bus service was introduced - something which he recommended in his critique.

In July 1969, after fierce public opposition and many heated debates in parliament, the Government abandoned the Foothills Expressway and Hills Freeway. However, this move was not enough to save them from the angry voters who elected a new government the next year. In June 1970 a new Labour Government took power and shelved the MATS plan. Although the Government suspended MATS it was reluctant to bite the bullet and dump it completely. Many within its ranks doubted that the public transport system could be upgraded sufficiently to meet Adelaide's future transport needs.

In October 1970 a report was presented to the Government that considered the need for freeways premature and concentrated on the need to upgrade public transport. However, the report recommended that the notion of key transport corridors should be retained.

Thus, in November 1971, the South Australian Government published a draft of variations to the MATS plan. The Hills Freeway and Foothills Expressway corridors were deleted while the other freeway corridors remained intact, instead labelled as 'transport corridors'. The Government also used the opportunity to call a complete moratorium on freeway construction, announcing that there would be no freeways constructed in the built-up area of Adelaide for at least ten years. Thus, the only freeway activity in South Australia for the next ten years was the construction of the South Eastern Freeway to Murray Bridge, which fell outside the built-up area of Adelaide.

The fate of the MATS plan was very significant to the Highways Department as it was the first time in its history that the Government had rejected the strong recommendations of the Commissioner.


Federal review of MATS freeway plans

In 1974 the newly-formed Commonwealth Bureau of Roads presented a report assessing the freeway plans of the state capital cities. The report's findings are as follows:

"In the case of Adelaide the South Australian Government has stated that no work will be commenced on any freeways within the built up areas of Adelaide before about 1979 or 1980. In these circumstances it could be said that there are no urban freeways currently proposed or being pursued. The Metropolitan Development Scheme 1962 was amended in 1971 to incorporate 'transportation corridors' in lieu of urban freeways. It is this plan for which we have used our assessment but it should be noted that the absence of details of facilities to be provided on each transport corridor, we have assumed that freeways will be constructed eventually.

"Middle to Outer Suburbs: The freeway system proposed does not conflict with our general principles although there appears to be limited alternative routes for inter-suburban and crosstown trips to avoid the eastern suburbs. This problem may justify the inclusion of portions of the inner ring routes around the east and south of the city but care would be required to avoid access to the CBD which would encourage car trips for work purposes.

"Inner Suburbs: The proposed Hilton Interchange and its connections to the CBD do not comply with our general principles, nor do the proposed freeways around the perimiter of the parklands surrounding the city. These projects could not be supported for construction in the near future. However, there is a requirement for improved facilities for heavy commercial traffic on the east and west sides of the city. The north-south freeway could provide for this movement but the design and operation of the freeway should be such, as not to encourage its use by CBD commuters using cars. Provided access to the CBD from the proposed freeways is carefully controlled, the remaining routes do not conflict with our principles."7


A map of Adelaide's proposed freeways in 1974. Source: CBR
(click to enlarge)
North East Area Public Transport Review and construction of the O'Bahn Busway

With the suspension of freeway porposals in 1971, the Government looked at ways in which to improve public transport to minimise the need for the construction of freeways. The largest area of Adelaide not served by heavy rail was the north east, with its hub at Tea Tree Plaza in Modbury. In September 1976 the North East Area Public Transport Review was completed and released to the public. The review recommended the construction a light rail line from the CBD to Tea Tree Plaza, utilising the Modbury Transport Corridor.

Construction commenced on the light rail in late 1978, only to be called to an abrupt halt in Sepatember 1979 as the Government prepared a preliminary design for the O'Bahn. In August 1980 the Govrnment publicly announced the decision to construct the O'Bahn. The busway proposal generated much controversy, most of which was in regard to its proposed location through the Torrens Valley. The busway would require ten bridges spanning the river. Construction of the busway commenced in February 1982.

Soon afterwards the Labour Government returned to power and reassessed the project. Construction continued, however, a second stage was postponed while the Government deliberated. Eventually the Government decided to construct the second stage and the O'Bahn busway was opened in two stages: Park Terrace to Darley Road (March 1986) and Darley Road to Tea Tree Plaza (August 1989).


MATS resurfaces

In Early 1980 the Tonkin Government won office and the Minister for Transport, Michael Wilson, announced a commitment by his Government to sell off much of the land acquired for possible transport corridors. Shortly afterwards he announced the abandonement of the idea of a connector between Hindmarsh and North Adelaide and the sale of land in the Hindmarsh area.

Much debate continued about the other proposed freeways in MATS, particularly the North-South Freeway. In February 1982 Wilson announced that the corridor would be halved in width and truncated south of Darlington. The idea of a high speed freeway was abandoned, although a corridor from Dry Creek to Darlington was to remain as a concept pending consideration of a redesigned, narrower road. In the immdeiate term, extra traffic was to be accommodated by the widening of South Road between Torrens Road and Daws Road.

Then, in June 1983, the North-South Corridor was completely abandoned - the disposal of land eesnetial to the project making it impossible to revivie should the need emerge. The abandonement of this freeway, the last surviving element of MATS, had a tremendous impact on the Highways Department as it was the first time in their history that the Government had rejected the strong recommendations of the Commissioner. It undermind the key elemt of what had been the Department's plans for Adelaide's future transport needs and struck at the Department's proud record of independence from politics. In a morbid coincidence Commissioner for Highways, Keith Johinke, suffered a heart attack and stroke two days later, causing his abrupt retirement.

Thus, with the death of MATS talk of freeways went somewhat quiet in the ensuing years.


Noarlunga Freeway revived

The southern portion of the North-South Freeway proposed in MATS was often referred to as the Noarlunga Freeway. Following the death of MATS in June 1983 the corridor was deleted north of Darlington, while south of Darlington to Old Noarlunga it was retained. Part of the freeway corridor had been built on in 1972 as the Old Noarlunga Bypass of Main South Road. With a six-lane parallel highway (Main South Road) and the newly opened four-lane Lonsdale Road, to me there seemed little need for construction of the Noarlunga Freeway in the forseeable future.

However, Transport SA claims that: "The need for the road has grown as urban development has continued in areas south of Darlington while employment continues to be concentrated in central metropolitan Adelaide."8 Transport SA also claimed that " fifteen years, residents of the southern suburbs will spend twice as long travelling to work-places north of Darlington if the Southern Expressway is not built."8 The option of upgrading public transport is somewhat cynically touched with Transport SA stating: "Public transport plays a relatively minor although vital role in meeting the needs of the southern community. hese services will be increased in the future as the region grows but will not affect the need for increased road capacity."8

In 1984, only one year after the death of MATS, the Government announced the intention to develop the 'Third Arterial Road', as it was then known, and planning and design work was commenced. In 1987 the project was split into two phases: Phase 1 - the upgrading of Main South Road and Marion Road around the Darlington area; and Phase 2 - a new road from Darlington to Reynella. At the time it was announced that Phase 2 would not be constructed until after 1993.

Phase one of the Third Arterial was complted in 1994 with the widening of Main South Road to eight lanes between Ayliffes Road and Seacombe Road and the widening of Marion Road to six lanes between Main South Road and Sturt Road. Phase 2 of the Third Arterial was included as an election policy of the Liberal Government which came to office in December 1993.

The announcement that Phase 2 of the Third Arterial would be replaced by the Southern Expressway came in March 1995 and it would be constructed in two stages: Stage 1 - from Darlington to Reynella, to be completed by the end of 1997; and Stage 2 - from Reynella to Old Noarlunga to be completed by the year 2000. The Government also announced that "because the demand for additional capacity is only for north-bound traffic in the morning and southbound traffic in the afternoon the road is being developed as a singel carriageway, one-way reversible road."8 Future duplication of the expressway would also be provided for in the roadworks base, and would be constructed when the need arises.

The proposed Southern Expressway would utilise the existing Noarlunga Freeway reservation, except for the northernmost kilometre, where a new route down the hill was chosen to provide high quality links with Marion and Main South Roads without cutting a swathe through Sturt.

Construction commenced on the Southern Expressway in July 1995 and the first stage, from Darlington to Reynella, was opened to traffic on 17 December 1997. The first stage has three lanes, the third of which splits of (southbound) at Reynella to join either Panatalinga Road or Main South Road.

Construction commenced on the second stage, from Reynella to Old Noarlunga, in February 1999. This 12km stage was opened to traffic on 9 September 2001, thus completing the Expressway to its original intent. Note: The MATS plan would have seen the expressway bypass Old Noarlunga and terminate just south of the Victor Harbour Road intersection. The Old Noarlunga Bypass was constructed in 1972 as Main South Road.


More Freeways for Adelaide?

With the completion of the first ever freeway in metropolitan Adelaide, once the voters experienced the traffic relief provided by the expressway there was always going to be pressure for more. For many years the South Australian Government had planned a better connection from the National Highways system to Port Adelaide, utilising part of the corridor of the Dry Creek Expressway. It would also form part of an east-west route between Tea Tree Gully and Port Adelaide, via an easterly extension of Montague Road. The project was initially known as the Gillman Highway.

In December 1998 approval was given for the construction of low-level road and rail bridges across the Port River between No.1 and No.2 docks, with opening spans for river traffic, and the associated Gillman Highway link. The bridge would connect the route of the Gillman Highway at Francis Street to Victoria Rd in the vicinity of Swigg St. The project gained federal funding as a Road of National Importance in March 2000 and construction of the first stage - the expressway from Eastern Parade to Sailisbury Highway - was opened to traffic in July 2005. The project is now known as the Port River Expressway and does not include the easterly extension of Montague Road - at this stage.


A resurgence of the North-South Freeway?

In the years following the death of MATS and the North-South Freeway there has been a steady growth in the volume of traffic using South Road to bypass the CBD and access Port Adelaide. The wfour-lane South Road is currently unable to cope with the number of vehicles using it, particualarly at intersections with high volumes of cross traffic. The first grade-separation on South Road was completed in March 1983 at Cross Road, Emerson, replacing a railway crossing. Now, similar treatments are proposed for other major intersections on South Road.

In May 2005 the South Australia Office For Infrastructure Development (OFID) released the overview for the South Australia Startegic Infrastructure Plan. Included in it was the grade-separation of the intersection between South Road and Anzac Highway and the construction of a tunnel to carry South Road traffic beneath Grange Road and Port Road. Not quite a reoccurance of the North-South Freeway proposal but nonetheless carrying the same principles. Perhaps the construction of these projects would have been much easier and cheaper had the corridor been retained.


The future

What now for the future of transport in Adelaide? A planning study is underway for the development of a freeway standard route for the Sturt Highway between Gawler and Port Wakefield Road, augmenting the currnet Main North Road section of the National Highway. Personally, I would prefer to see the expansion of the metropolitan rail system. Increased frequencies on all lines is essential to increase patronage - the best frequcency on any line at the moment is 15mins in peak, which is rather appalling. Unfortunately it seems that South Australian governments have little interest in public transport so we may well see some more freeway construction in the future.


1. Donovan, P.; Highways: A History of the South Australia Highways Department; 1991; p. 178
2. Town Planning Committee; Report on the Metropolitan Area of Adelaide 1962; 1962; p. 79
3. Cockburn, S., Ruff-Hewitt, M., Linn, R. & Stacey, B., Highway through the Hills: The Story of Mount Barker Road; 2000; p. 47
4. Correction by Darrin Smith
5. Thanks to Darrin Smith for telling me this one
6. Isaachsen, M.; Personal correspondance (Online) Available from:; 2001; Accessed 4/7/2005
7. Commonwealth Bureau of Roads; Freeway Plans for State Capital Cities; 1974
8. Transport South Australia; Southern Expressway Stage 2: Submission to the Parliamentary Public Works Committe; 19 January 1999; p. 4

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