Too far for the O'Keefe Rail Trail?

Bendigo Weekly | Bendigo Weekly | 11-Jan-2018

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O'Keefe Rail Trail.
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By Ted Coleman 

Is council freewheeling? It placed council’s part of a 76-kilometre Heathcote to Wallan O’Keefe Rail Trail extension on its government investment wish-list. 

No assessment of the existing $6 million Bendigo to Heathcote Trail, no feasibility study analysed, no councillor debate or resolution. The extension isn’t in council’s 2017-21 community plan. 

A ride too far. Most of the existing trail is underutilised; a tourism and economic bingle. 

Better choices are available.

Strathfieldsaye Shire launched the Junortoun to Axedale bike walking trail in 1993; Bendigo section completed 1999. A genuine beginning has since been high-jacked by outside special interests and tourism puff. We pay. 

In 2004, Bicycle Victoria, pushing to extend the trail, peddled: … ride down to Heathcote, fill your belly on wine and food, stay the night, and then ride back home the next day. 

In 2009, council pumped-up a $3.2 million submission to Regional Development Victoria for an Axedale to Heathcote section, claiming the trail will be a key driver to reverse declining visitation through the development of a new product to entice high yield tourists. 

The target market, growing nature-based international tourism… in particular New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, UK, Germany, and the emerging China niche markets who have an affinity with walking and cycling on rail trails. Really?

Council claimed the trail will attract a lucrative and passionate target market… that will deliver significant yield to the food, wine, accommodation, retail and tourism sectors of the region, and, would compare favourably with the Riesling Rail Trail in South Australia and the Otago Central Trail in New Zealand.

The economic analysis flaunted an annual $3.785m output increase, along with 16 new jobs. 

Council further decorated its submission with hyped healthy lifestyle and nature wording. 

No quantifiable outcomes were identified. It did imply it would seal parts of the trail to allow elderly residents to walk or drive their scooters. 

Council said success would be measured by auditing business investment; employment; tourism impact, new markets and infrastructure; increase in awareness and usage; and, economic benefit.

Council’s spin sprinted past RDV’s winning post. Fiction and peddlers’ dreams are never reality.

Other than laser counts council has not undertaken any promised audit measures. 

Excluding special events, data shows an average 20 users per day. One person can record several journeys. 

Few travel Bendigo to Axedale. At best, 50 annually make the full journey to Heathcote. 

No evidence of nature-based international or other tourists plonking the trail. 

Feeble outcomes.

Ratepayer money and government grants are not freebies. It’s not good enough to bolt off with dollars. Performance accountability ensures projects are effectively delivering what was promised. 

Government’s failure to monitor the use of Victorians’ money is surprising. It makes one wonder how many projects are like this.

Given the trail’s underperformance and council slips, councillors should explain why they allowed the Heathcote Wallan extension to ride into their wish-list? 

Council must change gear. Breakaway from tourism fantasies. Instead, encourage more local users and trail connectivity, boost Heathcote, and consolidate Mayfair to Axedale. 

Likewise, upgrade conditions for rural road cyclists – a thriving recreation activity. 

Work with riders to prioritise preferred routes for additional road safety investment to provide better cyclist and driver security that encourages greater participation.

Options include coloured road cycling markings, improved road edging, dangerous bends’ convex mirrors, by-pass lanes on narrower sections, and more bike alert signage. 

Better outcomes for greater Bendigo. 

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