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The North East Link mega-highway will permanently divide Watsonia, according to residents who are bitterly disappointed that new designs for the $16.5 billion toll road leave an eight-lane trench splitting their community.
Victoria’s largest road project will stretch 10 kilometres from Bulleen to Greensborough when it opens in 2028 and include 6.5 kilometres of underground tunnels. It will widen the Eastern Freeway to up to 20 lanes.
Hesham Mobarek from the Watsonia Traders Association, in front of where the North East Link tunnel will emerge. Credit: Jason South
On Monday, the state government released detailed designs for parts of the project including the road’s northern end, where it will connect to the Western Ring Road.
The tollway will emerge from the tunnel just south of the neighbourhood shopping centre in Watsonia, 16 kilometres north-east of the Melbourne CBD, and run as an eight-lane road trench along the current alignment of Greensborough Road, next to the Hurstbridge rail line.
Hesham Mobarek, a pharmacist and president of the Watsonia Traders Association, said the new designs failed to properly connect the east and western sides of the community – was a key object of the project’s urban design strategy.
“We’re gutted; we really do feel cheated,” Mobarek said. “They’re supposed to be connecting neighbourhoods. But this is going to be disastrous, with a horrible trench disconnecting the community.”
Watsonia locals say the North East Link road trench will divide their community.Credit: North East Link
Mobarek said two “land bridges” the project promised at Elder Street and Watsonia Road were tokenistic and narrow, and failed to lead directly to the central shopping strip and library next to Watsonia Station, where a new town square is being planned.
“For years they’ve been talking about amazing big green bridges to connect the communities, but this falls really far short of that – especially relative to other areas of the project,” Mobarek said.
About 40 to 50 per cent of customers at the shopping strip came from the other side of Greensborough Road, he said.
Watsonia Station has a small footbridge across the rail tracks leading to the local library and has also been earmarked for a multistorey car park. But the train station has unexpectedly been left out of the design plans and replaced with what Mobarek described as a “purple blob”.
Banyule Council Mayor Peter Castaldo said it was difficult to assess the full impact of the North East Link project without knowing what would happen to the station, and agreed that Watsonia would be “cut in half” under the current design.
“The design fails to put local people first and has not provided a well-connected and integrated design,” he said. “The landscaped land bridges in the plans don’t go nearly far enough, and getting from one side of Watsonia to the other will require walkers and cyclists to cross over two major roads.”
Castaldo said Banyule Council would continue pushing during the three-week design consultation period for more of the highway trench to be covered over to create green space, and walking and cycling connections.
The North East Link project extended the underground tunnels by 1.9 kilometres in 2021, which saved open and green space in communities further south.
Mobarek said the fact efforts to enhance community amenities in other sections of the project were not being made in Watsonia showed the community was being treated like “second class citizens”.
A spokesperson for the North East Link Project said increasing the tunnel further would extend the disruption for years and require more houses to be demolished. The council’s proposal to cover the highway trench between Elder Street and Watsonia Road would require a ventilation structure that would be an eyesore for the community, they said.
“We’ve worked closely with the community, local traders and council for the last four years to develop a project that will take 19,000 cars and trucks a day off Greensborough Road and deliver major improvements to how the local community moves around,” the spokesperson said, adding that the Watsonia Station car park design would be part of a future plan for the area.
The state government says the new toll road will be completed in 2028, and will shorten some road journeys by up to 35 minutes.
The first segments of two tunnel boring machines arrived in Watsonia last month and will begin boring the two 6.5-kilometre tunnels to Bulleen in the middle of next year.
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