F6 Southern Freeway : History and Development

The F6 Southern Freeway is the backbone of road transport in the Illawarra. Stretching from Waterfall, Sydney’s southernmost extremity, to Yallah, south of Dapto, the freeway carries through traffic and the National Route 1 shield. However, the freeway is not continuous between Waterfall and Yallah – a 15km gap exists where National Route 1 descends the Illawarra Escarpment, a very steep succession of cliffs about 5km inland, via Mount Ousley Road between Bulli Tops and Gwynnieville. It is unlikely that the gap will ever be filled, the existing road is about as good as you can get, within reason, through the unforgiving terrain. Information and photos for Mount Ousley Road can be found HERE.

Original plans saw the F6 one day extending all the way north from Waterfall to Ultimo via Captain Cook Bridge, Alexandria and Redfern. It is highly unlikely that the freeway will ever be constructed to its ultimate design.


Initial plans for a freeway

The F6 Southern Freeway was first touted in 1938 when the Metropolitan Planning Committee began assessing the existing Main Roads systems in the Sydney and Wollongong areas. However, due to the war efforts, planning was halted in 1939 and a fresh start made in 1943. This time, the Department of Main Roads undertook comprehensive surveys to determine the pattern of past and present development and predict future traffic growth. There was little or no information on this available at the time. In 1945, the DMR produced a detailed report entitled ‘The County of Cumberland Main Road Development Plan’. This plan, which differed little to what was eventually included in the County of Cumberland Planning Scheme, was the first official plan to include the F6 Southern Freeway. A route was suggested in the plan from Ultimo, south through Redfern, Alexandria, Ramsgate, Kirrawee and Loftus to Waterfall, generally paralleling the existing Princes Highway. The planning of the F6 was an incredible feat considering in 1945 the Princes Highway was still unsealed for more than half its length in NSW. It is also interesting to note that the plans for the F6 reached Waterfall only fifteen years after the bitumen seal did! The F6 corridor was subsequently included in the County of Cumberland Planning Scheme and gazetted in 1951. Where possible residential areas were avoided, although in some instances this could not be achieved, and it was hoped that “redevelopment of urban areas requiring renewal could be achieved, in part, as a compliment to construction.” 1

Also in 1945, the Department of Main Roads had compiled a plan for the development of a Main Roads system in the Wollongong-Port Kembla. Included in the plan, which stretched from Thirroul in the north to Dapto in the south, was the current F6 and Northern Distributor routes. The F6 would become the major route in, out and around Wollongong and made use of the newly constructed Mount Ousley Road. The F6 plan was later incorporated into the larger Illawarra Planning Scheme and the corridor gazetted in 1952.

So at the end of 1952, we have a freeway corridor from Ultimo to Waterfall and from Gwynnieville to Yallah, two reservations that span the lengths of their respectively planning regions. However, “the rapid increase in population and traffic in the 1950s was significantly greater than expected and it became evident that the expansion of the Main Roads system only to the extent that it was previously planned was inadequate if the demands of traffic were to be met.”2 Thus, the Department of Main Roads extended the locations of freeway reservations beyond the boundaries of the County of Cumberland, and the F6 reservation from Waterfall to Bulli Tops was gazetted.


Construction Commences

Construction of the first stage of the freeway was commenced in May 1959, to serve as a bypass of the Wollongong City Centre. This first stage stretched from the Princes Highway at North Wollongong to Philips Ave at West Wollongong , half of which is now the Northern Distributor. A small section of this route was opened to traffic in December 1959, between Princes Highway and Foley Street , so that the holiday traffic could bypass the city centre of Wollongong . The full first stage opened to traffic in July 1963 as a two-lane road with at-grade intersections. A link between this first stage and Mount Ousley Road at Gwynnieville was completed in March 1964, connected to the first stage by a signalised at-grade intersection, and thus forming the beginnings of the F6 Southern Freeway. As far as I know the freeway was not initially given the National Route 1 shield, this came later in July 1975. (However, I am prepared to be proved wrong on this one!) The route to West Wollongong was later duplicated in 1965.


The lone section in Sydney is constructed

Meanwhile in Sydney, construction of a small section of the F6 had been expedited to replace a ferry service across the Georges River that had operated since 1916. The Captain Cook Bridge, as it is named, was commenced in 1962 to cross the Georges River between Taren Point and Sans Souci. It would be part of the future route of the F6 and thus the southern approaches were constructed with provision for a grade-separated interchange. As it turns out, the Captain Cook Bridge is the only section of the freeway to have been constructed within the County of Cumberland, and the reservation is still intact. The six-lane bridge was opened to traffic in May 1965.


Southerly extensions in Wollongong

Back in Wollongong, the freeway was steadily making its way south and, in December 1967, the next installment of the F6 opened to traffic. This extension took the freeway from Philips Ave to Gladstone Ave, just past The Avenue overpass in Figtree. Opened as part of this extension was the Ghosts Creek Interchange with Princes Highway, interesting because it is one of the only places in NSW where a sign refers to the actual name of the freeway, in this case Southern Freeway. A picture of this is located in the photos section.

A start was made on the next section of freeway, from Gladstone Ave to Northcliffe Drive, in June 1966. This was an extremely complex project with thirteen major bridge structures required to separate conflicting traffic flows. After a nine-year construction period, the freeway extension was opened to traffic in December 1973, with only a single carriageway south of Five Islands Road. The duplicate carriageway was opened later, in July 1975.


Waterfall-Bulli Tops Tollwork

Meanwhile, work had been underway since July 1970 on the Waterfall-Bulli Tops section of freeway – then the longest section of freeway to have been constructed at one time (22.9km). The Waterfall-Bulli Tops section was financed by State Government bonds and thus was tolled to recoup the money spent constructing it. The Department of Main Roads considered two alternatives to providing increased capacity between Waterfall and Bulli Tops – the upgrading of the existing Princes Highway to a four-lane road or constructing a new four-lane grade separated road to freeway standards. The freeway was chosen because, although initially more expensive, “a freeway would offer safer and more economical travelling conditions for motorists, a traffic capacity adequate for many years to come and minimal interference with established developments along the route.”3 Financing the road posed some difficulty. Because it was located outside the Sydney Statistical Division as provided in Commonwealth Aid Roads Act, the proposed freeway was ineligible for urban arterial road funding. To allocate the needed funds from the rural arterial road grants to the proposed freeway would have been unsustainable, thus it was decided that finances would be raised through loans, as was done with the Berowra-Calga Tollwork (now the F3). An amendment to the Main Roads Act 1924-67 was passed in March 1970, allowing the Government to construct the tollwork. The route for the tollwork had been determined much earlier, in the late 1950s, and was located as far west as possible without encroaching on the difficult terrain of the Cataract Dam headwaters. Significant engineering problems were encountered across the swampy, treeless Maddens Plains. The Department managed to excavate deep open channels along each of side of the route, allowing the water to drain out. Once this was completed to a sufficient level, a layer of free-draining soil was spread over the ground to form the firm ground on which the freeway was constructed.

Also constructed to compliment the tollwork, were dual carriageways from Waterfall north to Loftus, the Sutherland Bypass, which opened on 16 September 1975, and 8.8km of dual carriageway on Mount Ousley Road, between Bulli Tops and Bellambi Creek. The Waterfall-Bulli Tops Tollwork was opened to traffic on 24 July 1975, costing $30.5 million (1975).


Changing attitudes to urban freeway construction sees a portion of the F6 reservation deleted

While all this work outside Sydney was underway the attitude towards freeway construction in urban areas was changing. This stemmed from the American experiences of ‘slum clearances’ in order to route their interstate freeways close to the city centre. In Australia, a heightened environmental and social awareness caused the Federal Government in 1973 to commission the Commonwealth Bureau of Roads to assess the freeway plans of state capital cities. The Federal Government assessed each proposal on the basis of new principles of design. Radial freeways in the inner city were discouraged, so as not to further encourage car commuters to the CBD, and circumferential routes were encouraged. The Bureau found that “the inner section of the…Southern Freeway [does] not comply with the Bureau’s general principles, and should not be given construction priority. The Bureau’s studies indicate that if [this] freeway [was] completed the social and economic benefits could be less than the cost to the community of providing these facilities.”4 On the back of this recommendation, and others, Labour Premier Neville Wran announced in August 1977 that the inner section of the F6, and other freeways, would be cancelled and the reservation sold off. Wran also announced that the F6 corridor would be retained in full south of Huntley Street, Alexandria. The estimated cost of construction of the cancelled section was $96 million (1977).


Completion of the freeway in Wollongong

Back in Wollongong, construction was progressing southwards from Northcliffe Drive. The first carriageway from Northcliffe Drive to Kanahooka Road in December 1978, followed by the second carriageway in June 1979. A further 2km extension of the freeway, to Fowlers Road, was opened in September 1981 and duplicated in 1983. The freeway reached its terminus at Yallah in June 1986 and was completed in May 1987 with the opening of the duplicate carriageway. Works undertaken to compliment the final freeway extension included two new bridges across the South Coast railway line at Yallah (1987), and a duplicate bridge over Macquarie Rivulet (Sep 1990), both on the Princes Highway. This work completed the freeway as far south as originally planned in the Illawarra Planning Scheme, however, even at this stage, only the Captain Cook Bridge section of freeway had been constructed north of Waterfall.


Tolls removed, a new interchange between Waterfall and Bulli and a section of the Princes Highway decommissioned

For many years residents of the Illawarra were complaining about having to pay the toll on the Waterfall-Bulli Tops Tollwork, after the F3 tolls were removed in 1988. Personally, I think they were a bunch of whingers, they had a perfectly fine free alternative – the original Princes Highway . The main argument is that they were disadvantaged by the toll, especially because the Central Coast and Newcastle commuters no longer had to pay. What their arguments conveniently forget to mention is the fact that F3 commuters had been paying a toll since 1965, ten years before the Waterfall-Bulli Tops Tollwork was opened, and the F6 loans had not yet been paid off. Thankfully, the Government showed some steel in the face of this ridiculous complaining and did not remove the toll until the 30 th June 1995 , when the loans were paid off in full. It was a moment of rejoicing for the Illawarra community as they felt they had overcome an injustice, although they conveniently forget that the F6 was tolled for 3 years less than the F3 but maybe that’s just me being pedantic.

Having rendered the Waterfall toll booths obsolete, the Illawarra public needed something new to complain about. They found it in the lack of an interchange with the F6 at Helensburgh, meaning that the poor Helensburgh and Stanwell Park residents had to use the Princes Highway, which has an appalling safety record especially in the wet. Ignoring the fact that they might not crash their cars on the old highway if they slowed down, the residents and business campaigned for an interchange and the Government agreed, opening a new fully-directional interchange with the Princes Highway at Helensburgh on 10 November 2000. The opening of the interchange meant that there is now absolutely no reason to travel on the old highway and it was subsequently decommissioned. On the 15 October 2002 the Princes Highway between Waterfall and Bulli Tops was reclassified Main Road No. 678 “Old Princes Highway” thus creating a 22km gap in the highway. The Southern Freeway is yet to be gazetted as the Princes Highway , a move that would make sense.


Gwynnieville Interchange

Back down Wollongong way, with the completion of the freeway south to Yallah in the late 1980s attention turned to the one remaining at-grade intersection – with the Northern Distributor at Gwynnieville. It seems rather ridiculous that this major intersection between the F6 and the F8 was controlled by traffic signals and thus in January 1995 an EIS was exhibited for a grade-separated interchange to alleviate congestion at this important intersection. A rather far-reaching proposal suggested in the 1980s “was the F5-and-a-half (or the Wollongong Bypass) which was a route that connected Mount Keira Rd and Mount Ousley Road and dropped down the Escarpment to join the F6 close to Masters Road. This option would involve the construction of a dual carriageway road for approximately 12km along a new route through environmentally sensitive terrain resulting in considerable expense and enormous environmental costs. In addition to those drawbacks, as a large proportion of the traffic already carried by the section of the F6 under investigation is intra-urban traffic within Wollongong, a bypass of Wollongong would not assist in catering for that traffic. So, even if a suitable route for a Wollongong bypass could be found, it is unlikely that the financing of such a route would be attractive to the private sector, because likely traffic volumes on such a toll road would not be sufficient for economic return. The route would only be beneficial to road-based coal traffic. However, this accounts for only 7.6% (max) of the total traffic.”5 The estimated cost of the proposal was $190 million (1995). The option chosen was a grade-separated interchange serving all movements except south-to-east as well as widening the freeway to six lanes between University Ave and Ghosts Creek Interchange. Construction commenced in April 1996 and the interchange opened to traffic in December 1998. Click HERE for a map of the alternatives considered for the Gwynniville Interchange, including the F5-and-a-half proposal.


Future Improvemtents & Extensions

The subject of constructing the F6 through Sutherland Shire was not something that surfaced often until recently. In 1989 press releases and articles in local newspapers claimed that parts of the freeway reservation that passed through the Royal National Park would be lifted and returned to the park. The Port Hacking Protection Society notes in November 1993 that four years after these claims were made, they had not been acted on and the land was still gazetted as a freeway reservation. The East Heathcote section of the freeway that was to be handed back to the park was only one mile long and no announcements were made in regard to the rest of the route inside the National Park between Waterfall and Kirrawee. The Port Hacking Protection Society was particularly opposed to the section of the F6 between the southern end of Acacia Rd at Kirrawee and Loftus Oval because it would alienate a half-mile-wide strip of bushland between the freeway and the Sutherland Bypass, a parallel route on 30 years old. In September 2002, then Minister for Roads, Carl Scully, announced that the 20km F6 corridor, from Princes Hwy at Loftus to Huntley St at Alexandria, would be abandoned “in favour of public transport corridor and recreational uses.”6 Scully went on to say that the freeway would have used up a wide swathe of land currently used as open space, while a public transport corridor would need much less land. Local MPs and residents were happy etc. etc. as they got to ‘keep’ their ‘open space’. Well, I somewhat disagree with their main arguments regarding the loss of open space. The land was gazetted in 1951 as a road reserve. The Department of Main Roads, and then the RTA, was kind enough to not fence the reservation off, as was done in some other places such as the Eastwood County Road reservation, and let the locals use it for parkland. Now eventually the land will probably be used to construct a freeway, hardly surprising seeing as it is a freeway reservation after all, and now the locals want to whinge about losing their open space, which they never would have had in the first place if it wasn’t for the DMR! I really think they should step back, say “thank you” to the RTA for letting them use it for so long and shut their mouths while the F6 Tollway is constructed! Mind you, it is a sound planning decision to not build a freeway there, as it would only encourage more car-dependant urban sprawl and subsequent car commuters to the CBD. In an interesting twist, Michael Costa, who replaced Scully as the Roads Minister, announced in early 2005 that the Government was no longer going to delete the freeway reserve, thus retaining it for future use as an expressway. Unsurprisingly there was some backlash, however, surprisingly, a lot of it came from his fellow Labour politicians. It seemed this went against their beliefs and Scully, now Minister for Police, was understandably angry. We will have to wait and see just how this proposal unfolds. Although with the current Government in charge, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for a comprehensive plan for Sydney.

1. Department of Main Roads; The Roadmakers: A History of Main Roads in NSW; 1976; p. 204-205
2. Department of Main Roads; The Roadmakers; A History of Main Roads in NSW; 1976; p. 205-206
3. Department of Main Roads; Main Roads Vol. 41 No. 1; September 1975; p. 3
4. Commonwealth Bureau of Roads; Freeway Plans of State Capital Cities; 1974; p. 5
5. Roads and Traffic Authority; F6 Freeway Wollongong Enhancement and Interchange with Main Road No. 626 Environmental Impact Statement; January 1995; p.3-11
6. Scully, C.; 20 Kilometre Freeway Corridor Abandoned and Dedicated to Public Transport (Online); http://www.transport.nsw.gov.au/news/media/2002/06-09-02-minister2.html; 6 September 2002; Accessed 10/6/2005

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