A furore has broken out about the Warringah Freeway Upgrade and Western Harbour Tunnel projects, following comments by a former bureaucrat that it will be a ‘bloody disaster’. Michelle Giglio reports

The sound of a jackhammer beats relentlessly in Greg Curyer’s loungeroom and it has been going on for three hours. While the level of sound makes it seem like the two-metre-long machines are inside his Neutral Bay house, they are actually 30 metres from his soundproofed home where workers are steadily taking out a lane’s worth of sandstone. Mr Curyer is one of many residents whose houses line the pathway of the Warringah Freeway Upgrade (WFU) in Cammeray, Neutral Bay, Waverton and North Sydney. For two years, residents have put up with works going for 24 hours a day – three hours on, one hour off, with night works allowed two evenings a week. “We are constantly barraged by noise. We’re all sleep deprived,” Mr Curyer says, frustrated. Add to that traffic diversions, parking restrictions, missed mail deliveries, garbage collected at 4am and dust and water seepage from the worksite. “We live with that day in, day out,” Mr Curyer adds. And there are still another four more years of works to go.

Mr Curyer played a recording of the jackhammering to North Shore Living (NL) and explained it took place during works undertaken last year. At the moment, Mr Curyer, who works from home, is dealing with noise from hydro demolition, which sounds a little bit like a loud vacuum cleaner.

Chainsaws and jackhammers are not the only irritants Mr Curyer and his wife have to deal with. Factor in inconveniences like not being able to access their street easily because of a boom gate controlling traffic, which causes a backup of vehicles. Just the other day, Mr Curyer took 40 minutes to get down the North Sydney off-ramp, a stretch of road about 300 metres long, which is his only access point home coming south-bound on the freeway.

There’s limited parking outside his Merlin Street house, where he has lived for 30 years, and at times the contractors take up spaces with heavy vehicles or their own cars. Walking to St Leonards Park with his dog used to be a quick five-minute trip, but has now turned into a 15 minute hike with pedestrians needing to navigate a maze of uphill, narrow scaffolding because of footpath closures. Prams need to be carried at some points and pedestrians compete with food delivery drivers on e-bikes.

“You can’t walk out of your place. You can’t always drive out as you’re often under boom gates. You feel like a prisoner in your very loud home is how I would describe it.”

‘Unavoidable impact’ is how Transport for NSW (TfNSW) described it when it put out the consultation papers to inform residents about how their lives would be changed by two projects which were to run almost simultaneously – the WFU and the Western Harbour Tunnel (WHT). The WHT will make it possible to drive from Rozelle to North Sydney via a 6.5 kilometre tunnel running underneath Sydney Harbour. Works on the six-lane tolled freeway are progressing slowly, with tunnel excavations at Cammeray starting in November last year. The WFU is much more advanced, almost half way through completion.

When details of the projects were announced four years ago, it was extremely difficult for Mr Curyer to get a sense of the extent of the works, with nearly 2,000 pages of information on the TfNSW website. “The reality is at the time we thought, ‘Oh, the bad news will be there’ll be an overpass on a bridge we had there’. It was never made clear the level, length and the magnitude of the noise and the incidental things which have changed our lives.”

Pedestrians compete with e-bikes in this narrow temporary walkway

Enter North Sydney Mayor Zoë Baker, tireless advocate for her community who says contractor CPB Downer and TfNSW ‘need to be held accountable’ to conditions of the project which are in place to protect residents. Council is fielding ‘daily’ complaints from residents about CPB Downer breaking planning approval conditions, including using car parking spaces intended for residents. In March, council voted to waive parking fines for affected residents. It has a dedicated public projects interface manager to ensure the contractor complies with its obligations. “Council is doing all it can to mitigate the negative effects of the project on our community,” the mayor tells NL. “These include increased air and noise pollution, increased traffic congestion on local streets, loss of more than 1.5 hectares of public open space, and loss of urban forest tree canopy and habitat for wildlife.”

The mayor created headlines recently when she declared the WHT project must be ‘paused’ at a recent NSW Parliamentary inquiry into the bungled Rozelle interchange.

“We think that the world has moved on and they really should be doing a pause and reflect on whether the WHT works, which are at a very early stage, can be justified in the context of constrained State Government budgets – but also the necessity,” Ms Baker said in her evidence on 23 April. Council reinforced her position at a meeting in May, following her council minute where she stated: “This is the last window of opportunity. To proceed on the current plans and ignore expert evidence is reckless in the extreme.”

Heavy vehicles parked in Merlin Street

It has long been council’s position – officially since 24 January, 2022 – that the WHT would cause traffic chaos at North Sydney, Ms Baker tells NL.

“Since the announcement of the WHT (in 2016), council has been raising concerns on behalf of our community that the project will funnel increased traffic to local roads and the existing traffic pinch points of the Harbour Bridge and Harbour Tunnel, which will increase existing congestion,” the mayor says.

Just recently, council passed a motion to ask Roads Minister John Graham to ‘urgently’ review the WHT and conduct new modelling of traffic impacts, given existing data still reflects traffic flow with the botched Beaches Link in place – and ignores the soon-to-be-opened Victoria Cross Metro in North Sydney.

“Under the planning approval, TfNSW is required to conduct this review in consultation with council, including modelling of traffic impacts. We are calling for transparency in this process and for this modelling to be released to the community,” the mayor tells NL.

Mayor Baker is not the only one concerned that the WHT/WFU projects are going to implode. Former Roads and Traffic Authority boss Les Wielinga did not mince his words when he told the Rozelle Inquiry that if the WHT intersection stays the way it is, ‘it’s going to be a bloody disaster’. “This new WHT has got all these little ramps feeding themselves into the intersection itself, and there are at least four lots of (lane traffic) feeding into that, so it’s going to blow the whole bloody thing up. You reckon you’ve got problems now. You wait. If you don’t change this bloody intersection soon, you’re going to have a lot more to deal with.”

Speaking at the Rozelle inquiry: John Graham and Zoë Baker

When John Graham gave evidence, he was asked by the committee chair if his government would ‘do anything to alleviate Rozelle Interchange 2.0 being imposed on North Sydney residents’. Mr Graham replied: “I expect (the Department of) Transport to learn the lessons. I expect public transport will make a difference here. I expect this to be a better result. But (the WHT) is already underway. It is needed to have that additional harbour crossing. We won’t be stopping the construction, at great cost to public taxpayers.”

A spokesperson for TfNSW said it had started work to evaluate ‘network integration requirements’ ahead of the WHT opening. “This includes looking at current traffic conditions and the government’s decision not to proceed with the Beaches Link project.”

Meanwhile, the long-suffering residents feel completely left out of the equation. “They don’t care about the noise, they don’t care about access to our homes and don’t care about the end result,” Greg Curyer says. “We will be looking at a raised concrete ramp behind our place.

“The reality is we’ve all been subject to this against our will. It’d be nicer if they took more concern and realised that the Government has chosen to use our homes as a building site.”

Mr Curyer says CPD Downer is doing its best within the constraints of operation, providing sleep masks and temporarily relocating residents if there are extended periods of night works, as well as offering serviced offices for those who work from home. CPD Downer holds monthly meetings with residents.

TfNSW also has a Noise Insulation Project for thousands of affected homes. Mr Curyer says sound-proofed windows and external doors have ‘made a big difference’ and ‘I’m grateful for that’. “But the truth is, you are not back to where you were.” The value of his house has markedly decreased, and while he has thought about moving, he ‘loves’ Neutral Bay and says he will suffer a financial loss if he sells.

Unlike with the now dumped Beaches Link project, there were no compulsory acquisitions of properties – a lack of foresight, in Mr Curyer’s opinion. “The reality is the impact on people has been life changing and they should have moved the most impacted people out because it (affects) every aspect of your life.” A TfNSW spokesperson said: “The construction of major infrastructure is unavoidably disruptive and we thank neighbouring residents for their patience while we deliver these essential projects.”