The Daintree Crossing Debate: An Explainer

BRIDGE OR FERRY

Paul Bugeja

Guest Columnist

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Bridge or Ferry for the Daintree River? Consultations are currently in full swing. Image: DSC
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Will Daintree River Crossing community consultations successfully “ferry” the people’s choice to council or end up being a bridge over troubled waters?

The Daintree River acts as something of a natural demarcation point for Douglas Shire.

For tourists to FNQ, it’s the marker of the beginning of their journey into the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics of Queensland - the Daintree.

For people of Douglas Shire - the majority of whom reside south of the river, with roughly 600-700 living in the north - it splits the community in two, literally and, on occasion, figuratively.

At present, the only practical way to cross this divide is via a single ferry service, which over time has become progressively impractical, particularly during busy tourist periods when the wait to cross has been up to two hours.

It is this, as much as anything, that has led to calls for well over a decade to reconsider the current Daintree ferry crossing arrangements.

The 2020 Local Election

In March 2020, change came to Douglas shire in the form of a new mayor, Councillor Michael Kerr, and two new councillors.

The incoming council immediately put on hold completion of the as-yet-unsigned two-ferry contract negotiated by the previous council led by then-mayor Julia Leu. This occurred because solicitors were still negotiating the contract when council went into caretaker mode, which led to council’s solicitors deciding it was inappropriate to proceed with negotiations given the Daintree crossing was an election issue.

True to the incoming mayor’s 2020 election pitch of “Transparency, Consultation and Accountability”, the decision was made because Mayor Kerr and the majority of council deemed the 2018 community consultation as being too limited in scope.

Why?

Primarily because the previous council neither put forward any other option outside of a ferry to the public and, at least according to the current mayor, was not transparent enough around the full costs of the two-ferry solution.

To rectify this, the current council compiled a Daintree River Crossing Options Assessment Report, released to the public on 25 August 2020, outlining several crossing options - alongside retaining a single ferry or moving to a two-ferry system, a bridge was included.

This was followed up by a survey of residents and ratepayers asking for feedback on the proposed options as a lead-in to a series of face-to-face council-led community consultations. All other bodies who had been involved in the 2018 consultation were similarly invited to comment.

Warren Entsch, well-known Federal MP for Leichhardt, is effusive in his praise of this process, viewing it as council “seeking out true and authentic consultation on big issues that the community should be consulted on.”

Entsch is particularly vocal about this because he feels that “this is the first time in decades council appears to be operating without any links to interest groups” who he fears have held some sway over council decisions in the past, particularly when it comes to the environment.

Community Consultation: Options on the Table

The inclusion of a bridge as an option is nothing new.

Such has been spoken of for years, even mentioned in earlier Daintree crossing reports undertaken by council.

But what does the community think?

For those who live permanently north of the river, feelings are mixed. As recently as early 2018, during a closed community meeting in the Daintree, some northern residents mentioned a bridge as being a preferred option, while others preferred a ferry and still do.

Take Mark Cromwell, Director of Ferntree Rainforest Lodge and Daintree Great Barrier Reef tours in Cape Tribulation. He prefers the ferry option because it “remains...a vital marketing asset for our region,” believing “Families, in general, appreciate the ferry experience (as) one of the main assets the DSC have to showcase that visitors are going to somewhere very special.”

Compare this to Lawrence Mason, Manager of Mason’s Store, Cafe and Tours, who first and foremost “would like to see a solution that solves the queueing issue”, but holds reservations about the two-ferry solution. Mason feels the shire should consider a single-lane bridge but “cannot in good faith support a ‘just like everywhere else bridge’, hoping it would be “made an attraction, with design elements in keeping with the jungle and river.” He also sees it as an environmentally friendly solution because it would remove “the need for extensive damaging dredging and the diesel engine pollution associated with the ferry.”

When the previous council conducted its own consultation in 2018, it released a Community Engagement Findings Report that dismissed the desire for a bridge as an option because only 5% of responses mentioned it. However, 5% amounted to just six from a total of 117 responses in a shire of around 12000 residents.

This may come as a surprise to those unaware of the low response numbers in 2018 - that such a small sample of residents (117 equates to 1.3% of the adult population) was deemed representative of community opinion, even more so in light of the 2006 Ombudsman’s report into the ferry tender of 2004 which recommended council vastly improve community consultation around major projects.

Using such limited data in 2018 stands in stark contrast to the response rate of the 2020 consultation: as of the time of publishing, over 2285 responses had been received, or over 25% of the adult population, which could rise further given there are still several weeks before the 26 October cut-off date.

Why has the response rate been so high in 2020?

It could be because the 2020 council-led community consultation has broadened the scope of the proposals to offer more detail for two distinct crossing options, thereby encouraging more community engagement. The number of consultations being held is also potentially a factor as further proof of good faith from council around seeking community views.

Attending the second of the community consultations in Port Douglas, there were around 20 residents, well over half the room (set up with more limited seating with COVID-safety protocols in mind. This group listened attentively to several council officers presenting the proposals, and when the floor was opened to questions, these flowed respectfully even as widely differing opinions were expressed.

In an interview with Mayor Kerr after the session, he expressed his delight and appreciation of such a solid turnout at the consultations and of the growing number of survey responses, citing the low 2018 response rate as being one of several drivers for holding this second round of community consultations.

And what has surprised him most about the two sessions he had already attended?

“I think seeing and hearing residents fully realise that this is a complicated situation and not a simple choice and having them appreciate council’s openness about the process. I’m also glad we can provide information that helps residents really think about what they want so they make their decision based on several options and how each affects them.”

What this seems to indicate is an activated, engaged community coming forward with their personal responses to the crossing proposal, driven primarily by two factors - the financial cost to residents and potential environmental impact from whichever option is chosen.

To help residents make their decision, both the proposal document and the consultation sessions provided a summarised overview of what the options look like, notably the “Benefits, Challenges and Risks” of each.

 

Is the devil in the “cost-to-the-community” detail?

Reading over the proposals document, one major aspect of making a decision becomes clearly apparent.

The choice before the community is as much as anything a choice between a service (the ferry) paid for by Council and recouped through ferry fees or an asset/piece of infrastructure (the bridge) owned by Council, and thus the community, that can also generate revenue to be cost-neutral.

Full details can be found in the proposal documents, but in a nutshell, the financial cost to the shire and residents can be summarised as follows:

  • Two-ferry solution: Unless ticket prices go up on average between 22-35% (equating to $42 for a return car trip), on top of the standard yearly general rates increase for residents there will be an ongoing additional increase of 2.9% due to the extra costs involved with this option. There is also the potential that, as per earlier studies findings, this solution may alleviate a short to medium term problem but might ultimately need to be replaced by a bridge, leading to the question of how much more that bridge might cost the longer it is pushed out.

  • Bridge: Built primarily with State and Federal funding still to be sourced, if successful with funding applications this option is essentially cost-neutral to the Shire outside of depreciation. If a toll of $20 return is imposed - as is likely to occur so that, much in the same way as with the current ferry fee, a cost to users acts as a “price signal” to help manage flows of people into the Daintree - there will be no rates increase. Without a toll, the estimated rates increase is 6%.

In terms of the environmental cost, interest groups such as the Douglas Shire Sustainability Group (DSSG), have already begun a campaign to “Save the Daintree (again!)”. Their website outlines the group’s fears about a bridge option, which range from a loss of jobs and revenue with the removal of the ferry to a bridge having “little aesthetic appeal”.

However, their primary focus is on what they predict as the environmental impact on wildlife and the Daintree from greater traffic and the possible acceleration of development a bridge might bring north of the river.*

Whether or not these fears would lead to such outcomes is clearly impossible to predict and cannot be stated as “facts” but such will still clearly play on the minds of some residents when casting their vote for their preferred option.

Where to from here?

A final decision will be made in early December.

Once submissions close on October 26, the independent pollster will collate the quantitative survey data (numerical) for council, while the qualitative (written) responses will be poured over by council.

And, to remain transparent, all responses will be de-identified (personal information removed) and made public.

One important aspect of this entire process to note is that it is not a referendum. While the quantitative voting aspect of this process will be considered in council’s final decision, particularly if there is a clear majority who vote for one option over another, the qualitative aspect will also be factored in and will be especially important if the popular vote is close.

Following a council workshop in late November, the council will further deliberate the matter and a decision is likely to be brought down by mid-December.

Until then, the community will hold its collective breath awaiting an outcome, knowing that whichever way the decision falls they have been consulted with and listened to by their council.

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* The DSSG, Cynthia Lui (State MP for Cook) and Tara Bennett (CEO, Tourism Port Douglas Daintree) were asked for comment but either declined or did not provide comment for this article in time for publication.



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