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Not even halfway there: Freeway truck crash shows we're living on a prayer


The latest shocking crash at the base of the South Eastern Freeway is a sign of a greater problem with South Australia’s transport “system”, argues Matthew Abraham.

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A humble cardboard sign hinted at divine intervention on the South Eastern Freeway’s killer intersection.

The sign, strapped high up a goose-neck light pole on the toll gate intersection, simply said: “Jesus Our Only Hope”.

Never a truer word for those countless thousands of motorists who take their lives in their hands negotiating the expanse of tar where the freeway empties Adelaide’s hopeful pilgrims onto Cross, Glen Osmond and Portrush roads.

Yea and verily, you don’t need to be a believer to accept it was a miracle no-one died when a truck towing a trailer ploughed through seven cars and a bus at the intersection on Sunday afternoon, sending nine people to hospital.

It’s certainly beyond belief that the 60-year-old Queensland truck driver – arrested, charged with 14 serious offences and released on bail to return home to the Sunshine Coast – was allegedly unlicensed. Let’s leave that little question for the courts, shall we?

This is a deadly intersection. In 2014, an out-of-control sewerage truck smashed through cars waiting at the lights, claiming two lives. That led to long-overdue speed and other restrictions on trucks using the freeway’s down-track. They appear to have helped, but not fixed, the constant threat to the lives of motorists.

As bad luck would have it, I’m a frequent visitor to this intersection. If you’re stuck in a block of cars waiting for the lights to change, trust me, you’re a sitting duck.

The whole catastrophe is a prime example of the haphazard approach by successive South Australian governments to transport planning in Adelaide.

Incredibly, no government for the last 50 years – Labor or Liberal – has put in the hard yards to draw up and fund a coherent, long-term integrated transport strategy for this city of 1.4 million people. They don’t have a plan. They don’t even have a clue.

Our governments prefer an ad hoc approach to transport spending, with priorities determined by pork-barrelling in marginal seats, ministerial whims, band-aid fixes and desperate grabs for Commonwealth cash.

How else do you explain needlessly blowing $61m of state and Commonwealth cash on the Cross and Fullarton road intersection, just a few hundred metres downhill from the toll gate? This doesn’t include the $2m trashing of the sweet, heritage-listed Urrbrae Gatehouse, rebuilding it at a new location where few will see it.

The Department of Infrastructure and Transport says the upgrade will “improve travel times and road safety, increase intersection capacity and enhance network reliability”. The “enhance network reliability” line is a giggle because it assumes Adelaide has a “transport network” to enhance.

Trams to nowhere that can’t turn right. The O-Bahn tunnel. No passenger train for Mount Barker. It’s what we do.

And squatting on top of all this, like a hungry, hungry hippo, is the South Road upgrade.

It’s a blessing new Transport Minister Tom Koutsantonis has gone back to the drawing board on the former Marshall Government’s $9b plans for a wild mish-mash of tunnels, fly-overs and lowered roadways for the so-called “missing link” of the South Road upgrade.

He’s a smart guy. He should dump the project completely. The state simply can’t afford to rack up $9b in debt for a project that promises to deliver so little for so much.

It might be a Boomer thing to remember, but Adelaide once briefly had a proper transport strategy – the Metropolitan Area Transport Study, or MATS plan.

It was released in 1969 by then Liberal Premier Steele Hall, caused a public uproar, then was shelved by the incoming Dunstan Government in the early ’70s. Dunstan at least preserved the land corridor. The death knell for MATS came in 1982 when the Tonkin Liberal Government started selling the land. It was killed stone dead in 1983 when the Bannon Labor Government abandoned land set aside for a North-South Corridor, the last remnant of MATS. Strangling MATS was a combined, apolitical effort.

Bob Day, former Family First Senator now head of the Australian Family Party, has been revisiting the MATS plan of late in his engaging email epistles to supporters.

Day, who at the time was working for the old SA Highways Department as a laboratory technician in the department’s materials, research and testing laboratories at Northfield, describes cancelling MATS as an “insane decision”.

“All the land for the new road corridors had been acquired and the project was ready to go,” he writes. “So distressed was Commissioner Keith Johinke by this announcement, he refused to sign the papers for the project’s cancellation, leaving it to an underling to carry out the Minister’s orders. The Department never recovered. Nor did Adelaide’s road transport system.”

For its day, MATS was a crazy, brave plan. For a city that had only just moved on from horse-drawn omnibuses, the concept of high-speed freeways looping the suburbs was like something lifted from The Jetsons*.

Former Liberal leader Steven Marshall came up with his own crazy brave transport idea for the 2018 state election. Globelink remains one of the few genuinely interesting policies put to SA voters in decades. A lack of political will and a $2m feasibility study killed it off.

Globelink promised an integrated road, rail and dedicated air freight hub at Murray Bridge, with a road and rail corridor running behind the Adelaide Hills, to connect both Highway One and the Melbourne rail line to northern Adelaide.

This would have taken nearly all heavy freight off the freeway and off Adelaide’s chronically-congested main roads, including parts of South Road. It’s still on the books somewhere, gathering dust on the same shelf as the MATS plan.

Miraculously, the placard proclaiming the saving grace of Our Lord and Saviour survived last Sunday’s unholy crash intact.

Sadly, it’s now vanished, possibly taken down by an over-zealous, or Godless, clean-up gang.

Pass the Rosary beads, fasten your seat belts and good luck.

*Boomer klaxon. The Jetsons was a futuristic children’s TV cartoon series first screened in the early 1960s.

Matthew Abraham’s political column is published on Fridays. Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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