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Lismore Council has voted to accept a staff recommendation to endorse a funding deed with the federal government for a 16.3km section of the Northern Rivers Rail Trail.
The section of the trail under the deed would run between the north/east side of the bridge over Back Creek at Bentley and the Lismore Railway Station at South Lismore.
A grant of $9,863,615 under the Building Better Regions Fund – Infrastructure Projects Stream – Round 5, would see the trail join the Richmond Valley Council section of the Rail Trail linking Casino to Lismore, providing a total rail-trail length of 29.7km.
NSW Public Works Advisory was engaged to provide an independent assessment of the project scope and budget, which confirmed the grant provided sufficient funds to complete the project. The report outlined the benefits, key risks and considerations for delivery of this project, and recommended the acceptance and execution of the funding deed.
The staff recommendation was that: Lismore City Council notes the project risks associated with the Northern Rivers Rail Trail between Bentley and the Lismore Railway Station project, and endorses the execution of the funding deed with the federal government consistent with the support provided to date under Council’s adopted Delivery Program, and that; Council be provided with regular updates on the planning for this project and actions to mitigate the project risks, and that further financial information be provided as part of Council’s 2022/23 budget deliberations.
A blast from the pastEx-Lismore City Mayor Jenny Dowell found herself on the other side of the chambers when she spoke during Council’s meeting in favour of the Rail Trail.
‘As is evidenced by the timing of this funding agreement that’s come for funding from the federal government for the Bentley to Lismore section of the rail trail, there is information that I think you need to know.
‘Although I’m speaking as the Lismore rep from the Northern Rivers Rail Trail committee, I’m also authorised tonight to speak on behalf of Regional Development Australia, Northern Rivers Board, of which I’m a member. The chair Don Page and the executive director Tim Williamson have approved me to inform you that the Northern Rivers Rail Trail is the number one regional priority for RDA Northern Rivers. The number one. The only regional priority for RDA Northern Rivers.’
Strong support from Regional Development AustraliaMs Dowell said the strong support for the rail trails by RDA is based on several issues: the employment in construction and ongoing employment through tourism and adjoining businesses and activation of communities along the way; keeping the corridor in public hands; connecting regional communities; generating health and social benefits; enhancing the environment with no negative environmental impacts, and; creating an alternative route for delivery, and an escape from flood situation or others.
‘Our Northern Rivers Rail Trail engineers also believe that construction of the rail trail may actually have a flood mitigation positive impact. There is no need to be along the top of the embankments, for example along in south and north Lismore.
‘RDA Northern Rivers is aware and has emphasised with our state and federal MPs with whom we have very good relationships, the need to address the necessary legislative change at the state level, the governance model and the need for maintenance money.
Councils should not be responsible for maintenanceMs Dowell said RDA and the Northern Rivers Rail Trail agree with all councils along the route, that council should not be imposed or should not be given responsibility for the maintenance of this rail trail. ‘We are working strongly with our federal and state members and other bodies, Destination New South Wales and others to make sure that that does not happen.
‘The Northern Rivers Rail Trail committee has constant engagement with staff from Tweed, Richmond Valley and Lismore councils and we commend your staff for this report.
‘There is strong community support for this project and a sound business case with return on investment being $1.70 for every $1 invested.’
Ms Dowell said rail-trails have revitalised communities throughout New Zealand, throughout other states in Australia. ‘Most recently, opening at the start of COVID, the Rosewood to Tumbarumba Rail Trail has had incredible benefits for those communities. Recently, Destination New South Wales and others held a meeting at Eltham and asked for people who might be interested in mentoring opportunities to take advantage of the Rail Trail and 20 businesses have signed up.
‘We urge you to sign this funding agreement and be assured that RDA and Northern Rivers Rail Trail will support and work with you along the way we understand the enormity of your task. We believe that together we can unlock a further $20 million to take the rail trail from Lismore to Bentley to Booyong.’
Giving hope to the people of LismorePresident of the Northern Rivers Rail Trail committee Pat Grier also spoke for the recommendation. ‘This project will give hope to the Lismore people because you’ll be getting funding of up to 30 million (dollars) to create a rail trail in this region. But it’ll also be fast-tracked within the next few years out 30 million will be coming to you and ever be creating jobs straightaway in the construction, but also give the opportunity for businesses and other jobs coming from those businesses. So this gives huge hope and bright and a bright future to the Lismore area. This is exactly what people want.’
Mr Grier said he wanted to talk about risk mitigation for council. ‘Quite rightly as a council you say “well where do we find the money if this goes wrong?” Well, there’s two parts to this project. One is the construction and for the construction to take place, there has to be an act of parliament to transfer it from Transport to open up the corridor so that the lease can be moved towards you, for you to actually start construction. That’s the first part of the process, and a lease will be given to you to start the construction, which then will be moved when the construction is completed to the actual body that’s going to be running the rail trail going to the future.
Unexpected costs met by the government‘The second is that the funds that have been allocated, have now been found by an independent body, to be adequate to do the first section which is from Bentley to Lismore. And from Tweed any overruns or any unexpected costs have been actually met by the government, so you’re very fortunate that you’ve got the Tweed ahead of you.
‘So a lot of the risks that are quite rightly listed in this paper have actually been covered by Tweed. And most of those risks such as antagonism by community and so on and so on, have dissipated.’
Mr Grier spoke about the financial risk to the council after the construction. ‘So the first stage is you will be given a lease of the corridor to carry out the construction. Then at the end of the lease, there was going to be an independent corporation set up supported by government underwritten by government, and we’ve got the support of government for this, to set up an independent body that will run, manage and meet all the costs of the rail trail. It will be a separate body to the council and that will have government representation, all the councils will be represented on it, there will be business representatives and there’ll be community. It will be a separate party set up by government to run the rail trail.
‘Then the lease that you have will then be transferred to that corporation and they will be liable for all the funding of the rail trail. There’s a whole raft of ways for the funding to be raised and we have a target. But I can assure you as far as liability of costs after the construction will flow to the setup corporation which government will develop for the whole 136 kilometres of the rail trail.
Bringing $30 million to the Lismore region‘If you want a project that’s going to bring 30 million into your Lismore region that’s going to give hope to your people, this is one of those projects I’m sure there’ll be others, but once you have worked all the way through the problems you’ve got today, [the floods] you’ll look to the future, and this will be the project that will actually deliver on the future for Lismore and the whole region.’
An excellent projectCr Elly Bird opened Council’s debate on the Rail Trail. ‘The Rail Trail is an excellent project and the thing that stood out for me this evening in the public access was that we need a project that’s going to give our community hope. The Rail Trail has done that before this recent [flood] event and it’ll do that afterwards.
We need a project that’s going to stimulate significant economic development. It’s going to give our community an opportunity to get out and enjoy our beautiful countryside once it’s repaired. We’ve heard that the risks have been adequately addressed by committee members and that it’s the number one regional priority of the Regional Development Board for the Northern Rivers. It’s a no brainer. It’s an excellent project. It’s well funded and it’s backed by bipartisan support at all levels of government so council should get on board and let’s get it happening.
A lot of issues in the documentationCr Peter Colby wanted to make an amendment to the motion. ‘I believe that it needs to go back to the situation where we’re actually briefed by the actual Council staff. I think there’s a lot of issues in the documentation that need to be addressed, and I think during the flood period where there was a point where we were actually going to get a briefing but it was cancelled. But bringing to light what was brought forward tonight, by the Northern Rivers Rail Trail people I think they [staff] should have reached out to the Northern Rivers Rail Trail people to clarify the actual real costs and the real leasing arrangements and the liabilities that Council will be involved in, and just to put it on the record
Cr Colby said he didn’t oppose the Rail Trail. ‘I believe that it’s a valuable item but I think we have to take a longer view at the actual issues of transportation in the Northern Rivers. I think they can be part of that for tourism. It can actually be part of the transportation strategy for the Northern Rivers, but once we get through the next six months or so, we should look at some way of actually looking at a transportation strategy because there’s got to be a lot of people moving around and we need to address that.
‘If I can change the amendment to say that we refer it back to the workshop committee, so that we can actually understand exactly what the changes are, and how it mitigates the liabilities of the council to be able to fund this.’
Focus on the motionAfter several more questions and some debate about the risks and how the financials would work, General Manager, John Walker, said he wanted councillors to focus on the motion itself. ‘What you’re being asked to do tonight is endorse the execution of the funding deed, not asking him to design it. There are issues that will go on as we move through with regular updates and planning. So the important thing tonight is to endorse that execution to make sure that the funding is secure before that date expires. And before this election. As you can see, we’re getting regular updates on the planning and on things that go forward.’
After almost 40 minutes of debate, councillors voted. Cr Colby’s amendment failed and the recommendation was passed with Councillors Ekins, Hall, Jensen, Rob, Gordon, and Krieg for, and Councillors Colby and Bing against.
Cr Guise did not vote and removed himself from the chambers during this item stating he had non-pecuniary but significant interest in the rail trail matter because he lives in North Lismore adjacent to the proposed rail trail.
This article first appeared on www.echo.net.au
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