Highway headaches: Uncorking the last of the holiday traffic bottlenecks

The old and new Pacific Highway has been Bottleneck Central for years during the Christmas holiday period. Photo: Simon Letch
The old and new Pacific Highway has been Bottleneck Central for years during the Christmas holiday period. Photo: Simon Letch
A common sight on the Pacific Highway come holiday time, as traffic is reduced to a crawl in 1968. Photo: Ronald Stewart

A common sight on the Pacific Highway come holiday time, as traffic is reduced to a crawl in 1968. Photo: Ronald Stewart

Parts of the Pacific Highway have long been tighter than a toreador's pants. Photo: Jamie Wicks

Parts of the Pacific Highway have long been tighter than a toreador's pants. Photo: Jamie Wicks

A highway duplication will soon reduce the need for trucks to be rumbling through Macksville.

A highway duplication will soon reduce the need for trucks to be rumbling through Macksville.

Traffic congestion on the Pacific Highway is as much a Christmas tradition as prawns, Carols in the Domain and plum pudding. Photo: Jamie Wicks

Traffic congestion on the Pacific Highway is as much a Christmas tradition as prawns, Carols in the Domain and plum pudding. Photo: Jamie Wicks

Micro Macksville, a Mid North Coast town of about 2500 people, roared like a mouse on Boxing Day.

The Pacific Highway passes through and the town imposes a 50km/h limit, three sets of traffic lights and a two-lane bridge tighter than a toreador's pants that unite to bring the whole holidaying caravanserai to a grinding halt.

For the next week or so, at least during daylight hours, a gigantic mostly motionless 25-kilometre traffic snarl will snake south of Macksville. In early January, a similar gridlock will build north of the town as the families of Sydney and Newcastle return south from Coffs Harbour, Yamba, Byron Bay, the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast.

But this is the last Macksville bottleneck.

The town, its tedious speed limit and its straight-out-of-the iron age bridge (well, 1931), will be consigned to collective memory late next year when the new $830 million highway duplication between Warrell Creek (south of Macksville) and Nambucca Heads opens.

Understandably perhaps, many might say hallelujah but the coming bypassing of Macksville is not without some sadness. After all, along with David Jones windows, prawns, Carols in the Domain and plum pudding, bottlenecks have been an enduring if not unendearing Christmas ritual for generations of families.

Since the FX Holden made the family car an Australian birthright circa the early 1950s, Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y children spent decades sitting in the back seats of sedans as their parents doggedly headed north or south after Christmas dinner.

Once the Hume Highway was a horror stretch, too. For years, come Christmas the little children suffered as family sedans remained gridlocked at Liverpool and all those towns in the Southern Highlands. But the road gradually opened up until duplication was completed in 2013 with Holbrook bypassed.

It was not much better along the NSW south coast. These days the Pacific Highway's main choke occurs around Berry, but the 12.5-kilometre Foxground and Berry bypass currently under construction and due to open in 2018 will ease the strain of going nowhere slow.

Now all that remains of the bad old days is the road north.

The old and new Pacific Highway was Bottleneck Central for years.

Let us draw a curtain over the horrors of the stretch between Hornsby and Newcastle that devastated the childhoods of many Baby Boomers before the F3 Freeway (now the M1) opened.

But those north coast towns – Hexham, Raymond Terrace, Karuah, Bulahdelah, Taree, Kempsey, Macksville, Nambucca Heads, Urunga and Coffs Harbour – struck horror into the hearts of the back seat brigade as they sat crawling through during Christmas, Easter and some school holidays.

Three decades ago, it could take two hours to complete the usually 20-minute trip from Raymond Terrace to Karuah before the highway duplication. Gridlock was so bad that in late December 1998, with 30,000 vehicles a day moving through town at a snail's pace, enterprising Karuah locals took to wandering along the lines of stationary sedans facing north flogging food and drink.

The year 2013 was a bumper one for bypassing with Bulahdelah and Kempsey joining the long list of drive-by victims.

Kempsey vanished thanks to a bypass that also required construction of Australia's longest road bridge, a giant 3.2-kilometre cement and steel structure built above the Macleay River floodplain.

The bypass and bridge was blessed relief. For years motorists pulling into Kempsey had already endured stationary hours at Bulahdelah and Taree only to be confronted with a Pacific Highway tortuously wandering down Kempsey's main drag where traffic lights stopped the flow to allow locals to get out of the supermarket carpark. Then travellers faced a 50km/h limit at Frederickton about four kilometres north of town, the crawl invariably made even worse by truckies and locals causing mayhem by parking willy-nilly to buy a vaunted local delicacy, a Fredo Pie.

All these towns feared dying a slow death as highway duplication and bypass edged closer.

But Roads and Maritime Services does not always deliver a coup de grace. Most adapt rather than die.

Macksville, after a century of being a provincial centre and a half-century of being a highway town, is now facing its moment of doubt about the future.

The Commonwealth Bank, however, had no doubt: in November  it fled town. Locals are now coming to terms with being forced to drive 15 kilometres to Nambucca Heads if they wish to speak with a teller face-to-face. But the big bank's flight must be weighed against Woolworths' decision six years back to open a supermarket in competition with the local Nambucca River Co-operative Society supermarket that had a virtual monopoly on town business since 1903 when it was established to market dairy products to Sydney after farmers followed cedar cutters up the valleys.

Woolworths took on the Co-op in the full knowledge that the town would soon be bypassed.

However, Woolworths' faith in Macksville comes with a cost for locals and Christmas vacationers. The new Woolworths complex was built on the southern outskirts, well away from the CBD and has broken the town's commercial heart – For Lease signs litter the shopping precinct.

A set of traffic lights to allow Woolworths customers access to the supermarket carpark is the first hurdle Macksville presents to vacationers and thousands of vehicles sit steaming while one or two locals mooch across the highway to go shopping.

Local businesses suffer when any town is bypassed but it is not all tears. Most locals love it.

Max Burrows lives on Bulahdelah Way, the town's noisiest street before the bypass. B-doubles would rumble past his front door 24-hours a day and begin down gearing for the hill that runs along the town's spine.

A neighbour, Rodney Ireland, lost his fence eight times to crashes over the years. "It's heavenly quiet now," Burrows says. "We're a far better place to live."

Bob Higgins, general manager, Pacific Highway, Roads and Maritime Services, says bypassed towns have a golden opportunity for a new lifestyle. The trick, he says, is finding new business. He names Bulahdelah's success in becoming a camping vans and recreation vehicles destination as a shining example.

Says Burrows: "We've got a boom in grey nomads. They stay an average 72 hours and on any night about 30 park their caravans and Winnebagos in the park across the (Myall) river."

Burrows says some cafes closed after the bypass but proprietors recognised they needed to attract a new clientele, changed their business model and have flourished.

"We lost much of the truck business but the town has always attracted Sydney people who wanted a cuppa and many still head here on their way north or when returning south," he says. "They remember the place. And they still come. There will be a lot of people who have always stopped at Macksville and they'll stay true."

This story Highway headaches: Uncorking the last of the holiday traffic bottlenecks first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.