VicRoads has come under fire about its environmental management of the Ravenswood Interchange project, after it again seriously underestimated the number of native trees it will have to fell.
Almost 1900 native trees will be cleared to make way for the sprawling interchange, the roads authority recently revealed, almost double the 1000 trees it had long said would go.
The revelation sets a pattern for VicRoads, which was widely condemned this year when it admitted it would have to destroy almost 900 towering old trees to widen a 41-kilometre stretch of the Western Highway.
Environmental approval for the project was given on the information that 221 large old trees would be felled.
The environment around Ravenswood is a mix of bushland reserve with many mature eucalyptus trees and farmland.
The black spot south of Bendigo has been called "the most dangerous intersection anywhere in Victoria" by a former premier, having seen six serious crashes, two of them fatal, in the past six years.
Work began this month on the construction of an $86 million circular interchange unique to Victoria that will make the intersection much safer.
There was no environmental effects statement for the project, which is being part-funded by the Commonwealth, but VicRoads strongly defended its commitment to preserving as many trees as possible, while stating the intersection's tragic crash record could not be ignored.
“Keeping people alive on our roads has to be our number one priority,” VicRoads chief executive John Merritt said.
“This is a major intersection of important interstate freight routes where there have been two fatalities and six serious crashes since 2009.”
The initial estimate of 1000 trees was based on aerial images and did not include smaller trees obscured from view beneath the canopy of large trees, Mr Merritt said.
A more recent count by independent ecologists in February identified that 1875 trees would have to go.
Mr Merritt said after the interchange is built in 2017, VicRoads would revegetate the site with 8100 trees, shrubs and grasses.
But that figure was condemned as “weak” by the Victorian National Parks Association.
It considers it an example of how government authorities such as VicRoads are allowed to meet softer targets to offset the environmental damage of their projects than private companies must abide by.
“We think that the government agencies should be doing better and should be held to account, more along the lines of what private landowners are required to do,” said Yasmin Kelsall, the association's habitat campaigner.
A review of Victoria's native vegetation laws is due to be completed early next year.
However, there is encouraging evidence VicRoads is willing to find ways to reduce the environmental damage of its projects, if road users are also willing to accept a cut to the speed limit.
In recent weeks it changed its proposal for a road widening project in Rushworth in northern Victoria that would have killed 100 trees, after the authority met with community anger.
A third of those trees will be retained in the new design, which reduces the road's speed limit from 100km/h to 80km/h.
The lower limit means a narrower road reserve can be created.
Louise Costa, a local campaigner, said VicRoads had become much more receptive to the idea of preserving the environment after talking to locals.
“This is a good example of VicRoads and the local community finding a way forward which balances the need for road safety and reduces the impact on the environment,” VicRoads' Mal Kersting said.
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