Cursing a pothole is one thing — opening your wallet to fill it is next level.
Byron Bay’s potholes are legendary, and roadwork vigilantes are taking matters into their own hands.
“It was getting pretty dangerous and nothing was being done about it,” explained one heroic hole-filler, who prefers to remain anonymous due to his unsanctioned, and unsafe, methods.
“I filled the pothole more for other people’s safety than my own.”
It was the first pothole the 20-something had filled, admitting he did not really know how to do it.
“It took about five minutes and $16 [two bags of cement] to fix the hole.”
Residents say filling the pothole in the middle of the road was a matter of public safety. (ABC: Elloise Farrow-Smith)
The tourist mecca is promoted as the land of milk and honey, where multi-million-dollar properties and Instagram-brushed residents decorate lifestyles of leisure.
But the streets of Byron Bay are never going to be paved with gold, according to shire Mayor Simon Richardson.
“There is this perception that we are an affluent community and therefore we should have roads that reflect that, but the affluence — and the rewards of the affluence — don’t go to the council,” he said.
Cr Richardson laments that expensive real estate means little to a financially struggling council.
The residential rates on a $1 million house compared to a $5 million house are not drastically different for the council.
“We have a ceiling and can’t charge any more once you reach the peak,” he said.
In New South Wales, rates are capped by the State Government, and they are not collected simply to fix roads.
Legislation dictates that the funds be spread across service areas such as footpaths, parks and rubbish collection.
“Even if we wanted to, not all the money we raise can go to roads,” Cr Richardson said.
Undeterred, residents recently started an online petition and Facebook page documenting local potholes and the damage caused to vehicles.
One man even penned a pothole song.
Whose fault is it anyway?
Byron Shire hosts around two million visitors each year, many of them day-trippers.
Cr Richardson said extra use contributed to a road’s demise, but it was not the root of the problem.
“Tourists play a role, but it still comes back to 15,000 people a year paying rates for a road system which requires more money than those ratepayers can provide,” he said.
Cr Richardson has been mayor for seven years and says he inherited a “wicked problem”.
“There was a deprioritising of roads and the council didn’t spend what it should have,” he said.
The council had some serious catching up to do, but it would never be enough, he said.
“It is almost an unquenchable appetite we have for great roads; we are never going to meet people’s expectations.
“In a sense, the backlog [of roadworks] will never really be dealt with unless we have a whole new way of dealing with the state and federal government funding processes to get the money that we need.”
Did you know?
- The main road into Byron Bay is a bit of a bumpy ride — that is because Ewingsdale Road is made on a base of logs
- The area is a wetland and in the old days of timber getting, the cheapest and most readily available landfill was felled trees
- Byron’s Mayor (who happens to be a member of the Greens Party) says ironically it is quite a good base because it allows the road to move with changing water levels and still provide stability
- “Of course nowadays if we were going to rebuild the road, we probably wouldn’t lay logs down,” Cr Richardson said
Byron Bay draws the inevitable comparison with that other coastal tourist mecca, Noosa.
It attracts 2.3 million visitors a year and, like Byron Bay, around half of those are day-trippers in cars.
Noosa’s sealed road network is 670 kilometres, Byron Bay is 510 kilometres — but that is where the similarities end.
Mayor Tony Wellington said his council had double the number of ratepayers (30,557) of Byron Shire (15,585).
It also gets to set its own rates.
“We’re fortunate in Queensland that all councils can set their own rates, and that means we can determine our rate increases from year to year,” he said.
Those rates generate revenue of $51 million compared with Byron’s $23 million.
“It is very much to Noosa’s good fortune that we have a sufficient ratepayer base to be able to cover the cost of maintenance and repair of our road network,” Cr Wellington said.
“We are acutely aware that good fortune is not applicable to every coastal shire or rural shire.”
Cr Richardson said smaller councils such as his could not cope.
“Across NSW, the backlog of road infrastructure is in the billions of dollars,” he said.
A Productivity Commission review in 2017 confirmed the need of reform to road funding arrangements.
“If left unaddressed, the existing funding approach for road infrastructure will put increasing pressure on governments to choose between roads and other services, shift further into debt, or increase taxes further,” the review said.
Simon Richardson says filling a pothole is a bottomless pit of money. (Supplied: Byron Shire Council)
What’s in a pothole?
Criticism of Byron Shire’s roads means Cr Richardson has become something of an authority on potholes.
“What a pothole ultimately is, is a sign that the surface under that road is failing — in a sense it erupts in that pothole, so it’s a weak point,” he said.
“Simply filling a pothole is only postponing the inevitable, because that road underneath will continue to fall apart, and that’s why people complain when they see a pothole being filled and two weeks later it’s empty again.”
Compared to road reconstruction, it was cheap to fill a pothole, he said.
“People need to ask themselves what would they rather: every five months get the potholes filled, which might last a month at best … or do you want us to do nothing in your road for three years and then we fix the road completely?” he said.
Noosa is not immune to potholes.
“They are certainly an issue because whenever we have a pothole, we find out about it straight away from our residents who have a fairly low tolerance for potholes,” Cr Wellington said.
That is not surprising given the certain satisfaction felt by those who are moved to fill them.
“I drive over it daily and it feels good to know the hole’s gone,” Byron Bay’s pothole vigilante said.
Who asked the question?
Kevin Lee moved to Byron Bay two years ago and says he was shocked that a place that was on the world map had such bad roads. (Supplied)