Australia’s longest shortcut

The Outback Way passes through Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

Around half of The Outback Way, which spans 2700 kilometres, has now been spray sealed. Roads & Infrastructure speaks to The Outback Way’s CEO, Helen Lewis, about the project’s progress.

In 1997, Patrick Hill, Laverton Shire President, envisioned the Outback Way project and took the idea to the Australian Local Government Association Conference (ALGA) for approval.

Mr. Hill originally wanted support for the asphalt sealing of the road from Laverton to Alice Springs. Soon after, the Shires of Winton and Boulia in Queensland suggested it could be extended to meet those communities.

The idea to upgrade the Outback Way from a dirt track to a type-three gravel road, a fully asphalt-sealed road, was quickly approved by the ALGA.

In 1998, the Outback Highway Development Council was formed with five local councils – Shire of Laverton, Ngaanyatjarraku Shire, Alice Springs Town Council, Boulia Shire and Winton.

The group of councils from along the route have continuously supported the development of the road through both financial and in-kind support.

The project’s funding model has comprised an 80 per cent federal contribution matched by 20 per cent state and territory contribution.

The Outback Way spans 2700 kilometres between Laverton in Western Australia and Winton in Queensland, passing through Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. So far, around 1500 kilometres of the road has been sealed.

The trans-national route is popular with tourists, pastoralists, freight and local communities.

The Outback Way Chief Executive Officer Helen Lewis talks to Roads & Infrastructure about the benefits of the road and the project’s execution.

“There is a large human component in doing the Outback Way. It will be a massive enabler for the mining, tourism, pasture sectors and freight and logistics sectors across the country. The upgrade will save travellers 10 hours from WA to Western Queensland, that is a day of driving for a truck which is a huge efficiency,” Ms. Lewis says.

The initial funding in 2007 enabled around 65 per cent of the road to be lifted from below ground surface and transformed into a type-three gravel road using unsealed stone 1-2 inches thick.

To begin with, an assessment of the entire road was performed jointly between the states and territory to mark the worst sections of the road. It also profiled how long each section was and what was needed for the upgrade.

The Outback Way is all about connecting communities along the route.

“Over the past six years the Outback Way has received over $400 million in funding and we are now a separate budget line item in the Australian federal budget. This means each year there is consideration of whether the project receives funding,” Ms. Lewis says.

Once the road was upgraded to type-three gravel and was drivable for standard vehicles, a connectivity model was continued to begin asphalt sealing from the weakest points onwards.

“When we received the initial $160 million an investment strategy was made. There is a checklist from start to finish of what works need to be done in each section and we prioritise that with the state and territory governments, Main Roads WA, the Department of Transport and Main Roads QLD and the Outback Highway Development Council,” Ms. Lewis says.

She says the prioritised standard of work means when funding becomes available all stakeholders know where this will be allocated and what sections are to be addressed first.

“We recently refreshed the remaining list to confirm what had already been done. Each jurisdiction was able to contribute what they thought were priorities in collaboration.”

So far, 1500 kilometres of the Outback Way has been sealed and there are currently about 1200 kilometres left to upgrade.

“With the rest of the current funding we will be able to get that figure down to about eight-or-nine hundred kilometres by 2021 and from there we will need further funding,” Ms. Lewis says.

Ms. Lewis says the pricing for the upgrades of the Outback Way are very reasonable and create a great return on investment.

“For a standard urban road, sealing each kilometre costs about $5 million. In Western Australia and Queensland on the Outback Way that figure averages at $350,000 per kilometre. In the Northern Territory prices are a little higher due to workers being contracted out, but the figure is still under a million dollars. So the return on investment is significant,” Ms. Lewis says.

She says the work crews are used to covering long distances, compared to city work which may only cover five kilometres for the whole project.

“The workers on this project tend to work through 20 kilometres and move straight onto the next location. They gradually work their way up the road, moving their base as they go which increases the efficiency of the work too,” Ms. Lewis says.

The paving process for the Outback Way requires a layer of gravel to be placed with the asphalt laid on top, which Ms. Lewis says is a similar process to a standard road.

However, each section of the road is being laid slightly differently due to regulations. Western Australia are doing a nine-metre seal, Northern Territory are doing eight, and Queensland covering seven metres in width.

“This will include a very wide shoulder to accommodate for transport and lengthen the life of the road by preventing breaking and crumbling at the edges,” Ms. Lewis says.

The Outback Way mapped out by the councils is scheduled to be completed in 2026, dependent on funding.

“If we can get the forward estimate money to eventuate, that is $100 million a year for four years. I’m confident we can get the project done with the funding,” Ms. Lewis says.

Although the Outback Way has been a largely successful project, it has not come without unique challenges.

“The main issues have been access to gravel and water, alongside permits,” Ms. Lewis says.

The Boulia Shire, anticipating issues with water supply, constructed bores along the road. The shire also mapped out its gravel pits so that through Western Australia, the location of gravel and water is clear for the entire project.

She says collaboration like this has contributed to the project’s smooth running and its success as a whole.

The Northern Territory arm of the road covers Indigenous heritage territory and therefore permits were required when constructing the road.

“The government worked through the process with the Central Land Council and while it did take time, these were sought well before work started so the process could be corre

The Outback Way aims to improve access to health and social services for remote and Indigenous communities.

ctly accommodated,” Ms. Lewis says.

She says there is a real desire from the communities along the road to get the upgrade as they see it resulting in economic development.

Once sealed, the road will present as another option to distribute freight around the country as it will help to connect the Queensland ports to Alice Springs and Darwin, right through to Western Australia.

“If bulk freight can go straight out from Alice to Darwin and be sent off, that opens a new opportunity and reduces the pressure on the Queensland port,” Ms. Lewis says.

While the freight and pastural industries will largely benefit from the Outback Way’s completion, Ms. Lewis says the most important aspect is connecting the communities along the route.

“The Outback Way is an example of what we can achieve when we collaborate with infrastructure; on this project everyone is sharing it out and we are doing what we can to improve the road and the lives of the people who need it most.”

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack says the Federal Government considers upgrades to the Outback Way a priority and has invested $330 million between 2013‑14 and 2026‑27 to work with the Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australian governments to get the job done.

“We have committed to upgrading key sections of the Outback Way and will fund up to 80 per cent of the total project cost in partnership with state and territory governments and relevant local councils,” he says.

Mr McCormack says the investment in the Outback Way is also improving access to health and social services for remote and Indigenous communities. He says that by improving access to vital services, the upgrades help build on government initiatives intended to improve standards of living and equity for Indigenous communities.

He says the current funding commitments for the Outback Way are available until 2026‑27.

Funding for further sections will be considered as part of future Budget processes.

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