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Farmer takes up fight to fix his regional roads

On the road outside Ryan Milgate’s farm at Minyip, 320km north-west of Melbourne, there are 18 signs warning motorists of a rough surface, and the speed limit permanently reduced to 80km/h as a result.

Over on the nearby Warracknabeal-Birchip Road, one frustrated local has taken matters into their own hands, writing VicRoads’ phone number – and a few other colourful messages of discontent where rutting has created a dangerous hazard.

With so many large grain trucks jostling for space on the rapidly shrinking lanes, Milgate is adamant that it’s not a case of if a tragedy occurs on the crumbling regional network, but when.

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Milgate, a Wimmera district grain councillor for the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) and chair of its transport and infrastructure committee.

“I’m really surprised there hasn’t been more incidents – it’s just a matter of time.

“Everyone knows the roads are rooted, but no one has done much about it. It’s got to the point that people just go, ‘Oh well, that’s what they’re like, I suppose we just have to deal with it’, but it’s beyond that now, it can’t be like that.”

For Milgate the tipping point was a Tweet in early February by Macedon MP Mary-Anne Thomas, the Labor minister for regional development.

In the note, she proclaimed how “wonderful” it was to have roads minister Ben Carroll in town to announce that hundreds of kilometres of roads across regional Victoria had been made safer and more reliable as Labor’s annual road maintenance blitz reached its halfway mark.

Milgate responded with a Tweet of his own, inviting Thomas and Carroll to see first-hand the poor state of the roads in his region by riding along with him in the cab of his Western Star.

MP Emma Kealy, left, joined Ryan Milgate and Nats’ deputy leader Steph Ryan in the Western Star.

He followed up with another video plea, a letter and an appearance on a local radio show, but his invites still failed to elicit any kind of response.

In the end it was Emma Kealy, Nationals MP for Lowan, and the Nats’ deputy state leader Steph Ryan, the MP for Euroa, who took him up on the offer for a seat in his truck.

They spent more than three back-breaking hours in the cab as Milgate took them from Minyip to Donald, north to Morton Plains and along the Warracknabeal-Birchip Rd, then from Warracknabeal back to Minyip.

It was an eye-opener, to say the least, with the infamous Warracknabeal-Birchip Road stretch proving to be especially memorable.

“We pulled up half a dozen times and then stopped in one particular spot where the bitumen on the shoulders had broken off,” said Milgate. 

“It was only seven feet wide from the centre line and while we were there two B-doubles passed each other so they saw it and went, ‘holy shit’. 

“That was a bit of a penny-drop moment for them. Once I’m sitting in this seat, this is my workplace. If I’m sending you to work in a factory, I’d expect it to be as safe as possible, but once we get out onto these roads, they’re far from it”

Steph Ryan has since co-launched a new campaign (visit vicsworstroad.vote) with state opposition leader Matthew Guy to identify Victoria’s worst road, and plans to present the findings to Carroll for urgent action.

“We know that roads right across Victoria are falling part,” said Ryan. “I get that feedback almost on a daily basis.”

Steph Ryan said the results of the campaign will feed into the opposition’s policy development at the next state election.

Ryan Milgate knows there are plenty of locals who feel the same way about Victoria’s country roads.

“But I hope we see some action before then. I don’t think we should have to wait for a state election, seven or eight months away to actually get some change.”

Aside from the inherent dangers of driving on Victoria’s regional roads, Milgate says the wear and tear on the trucks is also proving costly for operators.

He knows some fleets that used to get 250-300,000km out of a set of shocks; now they’re getting less than half of that.

“It’s knocking the shit out of them – the suspension and tyres are really copping it. They’re just breaking the U-bolts on the suspension and dragging steel on the ground and starting fires.

“Even in my [two] trucks I’m putting shocks in them every two years and I’m not doing that many k’s.”

By next harvest time, Milgate fears the roads will be even worse and the dangers further exacerbated by on-going driver shortages, wet weather and general neglect by the state government.

“They’re putting out fires now,” said Milgate of Labor’s much vaunted patch-up campaign of regional roads.

“There isn’t enough money around at the moment to fix it in the short term. It’s probably a 5-year plus project to really get a big enough change – it’s just been let go that far.”

Milgate believes funding is also being hamstrung by Labor giving up on the region because the Nats have such a stronghold. 

“I reckon that’s the whole problem with roads, having them tied to political parties and political decisions. Roads and infrastructure need to be decided from somewhere that’s removed from the political cycle full stop.

“Otherwise, we’ll never get our roads. They’ll spend more and more in cities and we’ll just end up driving on gravel tracks again soon the way we’re going.”

Update:

A Labor spokesperson said that as part of its current regional road maintenance blitz, it is delivering more than 200 individual road maintenance projects across the Wimmera.

“We know how critical Wimmera’s roads are to local farmers, freight operators and tourists, which is why our crews are working hard to repair, rebuild and resurface roads across the region,” the spokesperson said.

“These works are in addition to crews carrying out regular inspections of the road network to identify and repair hazards if and when they occur.”

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