HISTORY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIAN HIGHWAYS
South Australia was historically one of the better organised states when it came to road building. It is largely due to the amazing foresight shown by Colonel Light when he surveyed Adelaide in 1837 that the city has the road system that it does today. However, transport planning in recent years has let them down majorly. A city that once prided itself on having no freeways, Adelaide has seen the construction of a one-way freeway, designed to provide extra capacity for the commute to/from Adelaide. This is the most obvious sign that it is purely a step to increase capacity for private transport at a time where the demand for the car is trying to be suppressed. This article will take a look at all the important history of South Australia's roads. For more information on the planned network of freeways in SA, click HERE.
Initially, the provision of roads and bridges was considered a local government matter and, in April 1917, the Local Government Department was formed to oversee the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges, still the responsibility of local governments, through most of the state. However, until World War 2, the more remote areas (e.g. Nullarbor Plain) were under the control of the Engineering and Water Supply Authority. The increased popularity and ownership of motor vehicles in the early 20th century brought with it the need for a central body with the responsibility of providing improved main roads. As seen across the country, the major through routes tended to be neglected by local governments who were reluctant to spend their money on roads that would primarily benefit those travelling through their land, not those who lived there. Thus, on the 23rd of March 1927 the South Australian Highways and Local Government Department was formed following the passing of the Highways Act 1926. The Highways Act created the statutory position of Commissioner for Highways, who is charged with the duty of carrying the Highways Act 1926 into effect. Under the Act, a Highways Fund was created, into which went all licence and registration fees, only for use by the Commissioner for Highways. Combining the Highways Fund with the fact that the Commissioner was answerable to no-one, only needing Ministerial permission for the allocation of funds, the Commissioner was virtually independent of his political masters. Fortunately, Daniel Victor (D.V) Fleming, an extremely competent and unscrupulously honest man, was appointed the first Commissioner for Highways.
The Department immediately began work on improving the state's roads. As new road making techniques became available the Department gradually developed new types of pavement and bridge construction methods that were suitable for local conditions. Commissioner Fleming created the 'great plan' to reconstruct and seal all the state's major highways and by 1931 most major population centres within 150km of Adelaide were connected with bitumen sealed highways. During the 1930s an average of 550km of road were sealed annually, totalling 3000km by 1939. Despite having the sole use of the monies in the Highways Fund, the Highways and Local Government Department still relied greatly on Commonwealth grants, the reliance increasing during the Depression and War years.
Stuart Nicol, author of the Royal Automobile Association South Australia's book 'Bullock Tracks and Bitumen: South Australia's Motoring Heritage' describes one of the new construction techniques pioneered by the SA Highways Department. “Road conditions played their part in dictating when cars and trucks began to gain popularity. One man was largely responsible for achieving a badly-needed improvement on the Peninsula. His name was Robert Bratten, overseer for road building and maintenance with Tumby Bay District Council late in the 1920’s. The Peninsula had its own road problems, of which one of the most serious and widespread was a hard limestone layer at the surface. Bratten found that below there was a much softer material and he devised a plough which ripped the tough surface. When this had been removed, the softer limestone was graded, cambered and compressed into a vastly improved surface. The idea was so successful that Brattenised roads appeared throughout the western part of the State. Improvement though it was, the top was ground into dust in time, and blew away. When the rains came they swept down the roads in a river, and work had to begin all over again. For all that, Brattenisation marked the start of properly trafficable roads on the Eyre Peninsula and played a major part during the 1930’s in opening the area to motor traffic.”1
Also during the Depression was the installation of the first three-colour traffic signals in South Australia. In April 1937 they replaced a Swedish-made two-colour set installed at the intersection of King William St & Hindley St and Rundle St, Adelaide, installed in December 1927.
At the commencement of the Second World War in 1939 the need for improved roads linking the states became imperative. The Dukes Highway was improved between Moorlands and Bordertown, and a new road was constructed across the Nullarbor Plain, the first formed road between WA and the eastern states. The Department also worked with road authorities from Queensland and New South Wales in constructing a road between Alice Springs and Darwin as well as roadworks at numerous camps, aerodromes and munitions factories across the State. The matter of constructing a road from Port Augusta north to Alice Springs was raised and rough estimates made, however, nothing eventuated.
Following World War 2, town planning was in the spotlight as the country began to rebuild after the war. The Highways Department had been planning since the withdraw of the Japanese from the Pacific region in 1943 and thus, in December 1946, the Metropolitan Adelaide Road Widening Scheme was adopted. Developed as a long-term program, it was initiated to enable the systematic upgrading of Adelaide's major thoroughfares, while causing only minimal disruption to the city's development. In this scheme, Commissioner Fleming requested that councils fix building lines to prevent new work from starting on land required for road widening - wanting 80 feet between building alignments, enough to provide six traffic lanes and two footpaths. In the inner areas the Department was content to increase road widths to 80 feet but in the more lightly built up areas there were plans for roads of 100ft width that would permit divided traffic lanes and room for beautification. Along the most important routes, such as Main North Road, the Department secured land 132ft wide 'with a view towards future expressways'. A map produced by the Highways Department of the roads affected can be seen HERE.
In December 1949 Commissioner DV Fleming retired. Peter Donovan, author of the book 'Highways: A History of the South Australian Highways Department' wrote that Fleming's management was conservative but he was extremely competent and scrupulously honest. The Highways Act and Highways Fund gave him almost unlimited power and meant he was virtually independant of his political masters, however, he exercised this power benevolently. His contribution to the state and the Department was commemorated by the naming of the bridge over the Onkaparinga River at Old Noarlunga in his name.
Meanwhile, the Department began a program to the major trunk roads into Adelaide from the north (Main North Road), south (Main South Road) and east (Princes Highway). In November 1953 the Highways Act was amended to bring the Commissioner under Ministerial control, thus making him publicly accountable for his decisions. This was not a reflection on the person that replaced Fleming as Commissioner, but rather a measure to ensure that the Department is run sensibly and responsibly.
In 1955 the Town Planning Act was amended to require 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 and prepared the 'Metropolitan Adelaide Development 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." Jensen emphasised the need for grade separated crossings at major junctions on the Anzac Highway. Soon afterwards, several other experts also 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 the city growth outpaces the planners. The longer the delay, the more difficult and expensive the job will become."2 Not much later, in November 1959, Minister for Roads, Norman Jude, unveiled plans for a freeway from Klemzig to Modbury. Thus began the story of Adelaide's freeways.
In October 1960, Jude then introduced a bill to the State parliament enabling the Government to construct freeways and operate them as controlled access roads. In accordance with this legislation, part of the 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 Main North Road for its primary purpose - that of permitting a fast traffic flow to the city."3
1962 was a big year for Adelaide's transport system. The Town Planning Committee released its 'Metropolitan Adelaide Development Plan' which addressed the future of Adelaide's road network. The Committee reported that: "Road widening, the improvement of intersections, more stringent access control measures and the prohibition 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 an extent that a new type of highway, called a freeway, will become necessary to enable large volumes of traffic to move safely and swiftly."4 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 Rd [Main South Road] south of Noarlunga."
At this stage it seemed as though the Department would soon be embarking on a major freeway construction program but the Department was completely inexperienced in freeway construction. Thus, in February 1962, the Department commissioned an American consultant to advise on a proposed first section of the South Eastern Freeway and complete the preliminary design. In May 1962 the plans were released to the public with some controversy - the only economical route passed through Arbury Park and through the middle of MP Alexander Downer's property. Downer attempted to have the original alignment changed via a plea to the Premier at the time, Thomas Playford, but the Premier backed the Highways Department when they showed him it was the only viable route. Downer eventually gave up the fight when he accepted a job in Port Augusta and relocated. Construction duly commenced in December 1965.
As a follow up to the Report on the Metropolitan Area of Adelaide in December 1964 the Government announced the commencement of a two-year planning study for Adelaide's transport needs. The complex nature of the report caused a delay in completion and it wasn't until August 1968 that the report on the Metropolitan Adelaide Transportation Study (MATS) was released and the Government announced that no action would be taken for six months to allow opportunity for public comment. The MATS 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 report estimated that the cost of land acquistion and construction was $436.5 million (1968).
The MATS plan and the history of South Australia's freeway system is covered in more detail HERE.
This was by no means as extensive as the freeway plans of most other cities in Australia - with the exception of Hobart and Darwin - yet to say that public reaction was unfavourable would be a massive understatement. The Highways Department had projected that the route of the Noarlunga Freeway alone would require the acquisition of as many as 3,000 properties - including 817 residential dwellings. For all the critics of MATS, none suggested any realistic alternatives other than to subject two-thirds of South Australia's population to the high-density development that has never been tolerated by more than a tenth of the English, French or Americans. In November 1968 AG Flint, the Superintendending Engineer (Planning) of the Highways Department hit back at 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 Cabinet approved the MATS plan minus these specific proposals, pending further review:
- Diversion of railway from Edwardstown to Goodwood
- Closure of Grange Railway Line
- Proposed Hills Freeway and Foothills Expressway
- Selected sections of Modbury and Noarlunga Freeways and Dry Creek Expressway
However, in June 1969, the Hills Freeway and Foothills Expressway were both abandoned in the face of fierce public opposition. The Hills Freeway would have cut a large swathe through the inner east of Adelaide, some of the most established parts of the city. One year later, in June 1970, the Labour Government took power - I would imagine that the controversy surrounding MATS was a major reason behind the Liberals losing power - and shelved the MATS plan. Although the Labour Government postponed MATS indefinately they wouldn't bite the bullet and dump it completely. Many within the ranks of the party doubted that public transport transport could be upgraded sufficiently to meet Adelaide's transport needs. In October 1970 the Government was presented a report that considered the need for freeways premature and concentrated on the need to upgrade public transport, although the notion of key transport corridors was retained. In November 1971 the Government published a draft of variations of the MATS plan, with the freeway reservations retained but now as "Transport Corridors" rather than freeway corridors. The Government used this occassion to announce that there would be no freeways built within the built-up area of Adelaide for at least 10 years. The fate of MATS at this point in time was very significant to the Highways Department - it was the first time that the Government had rejected the strong recommendations of the Commissioner.
In February 1972 Commissioner Keith Johinke announced that the South Eastern Freeway would extend from Callington to Murray Bridge, claiming this would be cheaper than upgrading the existing road. However, the real reason behind the extension was uncovered in November when Premier Don Dunstan announced a site near Murray Bridge had chosen for the new city of Murray, later renamed Monarto. Also in 1972, the Metropolitan Adelaide Road Widening Act was amended, requiring the Commissioner to provide a plan identifying all roads to be widened and the land requiring acquisition. This way all the needed land was reserved and any new construction on reserved land required approval from the Commissioner.
In 1974 the Commonwealth Bureau of Roads released its report 'Freeway Plans for State Capital Cities' with recommendations for the freeway proposals in Adelaide. The report noted that "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."5 The report was generally supportive of the middle and outer freeways but was extremely critical of the freeways in inner areas. It did, however, recognise the need for improved facilities for heavy commercial traffic on the east and west sides of the city.
While there was a relative lull in construction from an outsiders view - who would focus on Adelaide - important works were goign ahead at full speed across the state. Major projects completed during the 1970s include: Eyre Highway sealing, Flinders Hwy sealing, Barrier Hwy sealing (1968), South Eastern Freeway, Birdsville Track Reconstruction; and the reconstruction of the Stuart Highway was commenced. The Stuart Highway was a landmark project in that it was the Department's last major construction project, completing the 'great plan' devised by D.V. Fleming in 1925 to reconstruct and seal all SA's major roads.
Back in Adelaide with the freeway moratorium nearing an end a decision was made to use the Modbury Transport Corridor, not for a freeway but for a special O'Bahn busway. In August 1980 the Government announced the decision to construct the O'Bahn - a special guided concrete busway capable of carrying buses at 100km/h without the need to steer. The Busway generated some controversy, there was opposition to its location in the River Torrens valley requiring ten bridge across the river. Nevertheless, when the Tonkin Government continued construction and the O'Bahn was completed to Tea Tree Plaza in August 1989.
Another move by the Tonkin Government soon after winning office was the removal of 31 roads (61%) from the Metropolitan Adelaide Road Widening Scheme. The object of the amendment was to free many Department-owned properties. The Minister for Transport, Michael Wilson, announced a commitment by the Tonkin Government to sell of much of the land required for possible transport corridors. Shortly afterwards he announced the abandonement of the idea of a connector between North Adelaide and Hindmarsh Boulevard and the sale of land in the Hindmarsh area. Their next move was to announce that the North-South Freeway corridor would be cut in half and truncated at Darlington then, in June 1983, the corridor was completely abandoned and that the sale of the corridor would proceed. This finally sounded the death knell of the MATS plan and had a tremendous effect on the Highways Department. It undermind the key element of what had been the Department's plans for Adelaide's future transport needs and it also struck at the Department's proud record of independence from politics. By a strange coincidence Commissioner for Highways Keith Johinke suffered a heart attack and a stroke two days later, causing his abrupt retirement.
Despite the death of MATS the 1980s was still a time of celebration for the Highways Department. In January 1987 work on the Bordertown Bypass commenced - the first contract won by the Department in direct competition with private contractors - and the Stuart Highway was officially opened in March 1987. Administrative changes, that had plagued the other states at a time of economic and bureaucratic reform, rattled the Highways Department. In September 1989 the Department of Transport and the Highways Department were combined to become the Department of Road Transport. This meant the abandonment of the Highways Department's distinctive logo, something the South Australian public had come to trust and respect. Only four years later the name was changed again, this time becoming the Road Transport Agency (Department of Transport) and a year simply the Department of Transport. In 1997, the name was changed yet again as Ministerial portfolios shifted, this time beomcing Transport SA (Department for Transport, Urban Planning and the Arts). Finally, in 2002, the Arts component was removed and what used to be the Highways Department finally morphed into Transport SA (Department for Transport and Urban Planning). The Executive Director of Transport SA is also appointed the statutory position of Commissioner for Highways, and is charged with the duty of carrying the Highways Act 1926 into effect. Personally, I think that urban planning and transport planning are so integrated that they need to be combined under one authority. By merging these two Departments, the South Australian Government has set a precedent in the quest for integrated land use and transport planning.
Unfortunately on the construction side of things the same theory has not followed. During a time of not only economic and bureaucratic reform, the ideals were changing. The MATS plan that was completely abandoned in June 1983 was partially resurfaced in 1995 with the announcement that the Southern Expressway would be constructed between Darlington and Old Noarlunga. Since then, the Port River Expressway has been constructed and there are plans for a new freeway standard northern entrance to Adelaide for the Stuart Highway. Grade-separations at major intersections on South Road are planned in what seems to me like a regression towards the freeway-centric planning of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I would prefer to see the extension of the metropolitan passenger rail services and a major increase in frequencies but it seems unlikely to happen.
1. Nicol, S.; Bullock Tracks to Bitumen: The Story of South Australia's Motoring Heritage; 1978; p. 56
2. Donovan, P.; Highways: A History of the South Australian Highways Department; 1991; p.162
3. Donovan, P.; Highways: A History of the South Australian Highways Department; 1991; p.178
4. Town Planning Committee; Report on the Metropolitan Area of Adelaide 1962; 1962; p. 79
5. Commonwealth Bureau of Roads; Freeway Plans for State Capital Cities; 1974; p. 8