The future, and to some extent the past, of a local bridge has become a matter of contention between Moira Shire Council and members of the community.
Moira Shire Council unexpectedly closed the Wilby Bridge around a month ago, cutting off the main access point to the Wilby Recreation Reserve, and later informed the community the crossing would only be restored for pedestrian access rather than as a vehicle crossing.
Council told the community, via a Fact Sheet titled ‘Wilby Footbridge repair works’ that the crossing in question was “a rare example of infrastructure from the turn of the 20th century in Wilby” and is listed within Council’s Heritage Study.
The sheet says “the original footbridge is listed within council’s Heritage Study and the study’s Statement of Significance saying ‘the Wilby footbridge is aesthetically, historically and scientifically significant as a rare extant timber footbridge’”.
The fact sheet also includes a photograph of a person standing on the bridge, believed to have been taken in 1901.
Acting General Manager Infrastructure Graham Henderson said in a press statement “council would explore all funding options to restore the bridge to its original state however this would not include elevating it to a traffic bridge”.
The Wilby community raised concerns first and foremost about the unexpected bridge closure and secondly about Moira Shire Council’s repeated reference to the current bridge itself being of heritage significance.
“That original bridge was removed and replaced with a swing bridge in the 1920s and then later, in the 1960s, replaced with the bridge that is there today,” said Wilby resident Helen White.
“Members of the local community assisted with building the bridge, dragging the three large trees used to make the crossing.
“I’ve even found minutes of a Wilby community meeting in 1962 which talk of the bridge construction. Council has closed our bridge and are telling it has to be repaired, but it’s not even the bridge they say it is.”
The question of the bridge, when raised with Moira Shire Council, resulted in a response from Mr Henderson apologising for any confusion.
“It’s obvious that the current bridge is not the same as the bridge from the 1901 photos,” he said.
“The factsheet reference to the 1901 bridge shows there has been a continuous link between the town and the recreation reserve at or near the site of the current bridge for over a centre.
“This will be a key point in any application we make for heritage funding to replace the bridge at this location.”
Bridge confusion aside, the current Wilby Bridge has for many years provided vehicle and pedestrian access to the Wilby Recreation Reserve for members of the community and visitors.
Sitting directly off the Tungamah-Peechelba Road, the bridge provides a link to the nearby Wilby Hall and, within the reserve, direct access to tennis courts, public toilets, barbecue rotunda and a playground.
Moira Shire Council closed the bridge due to a “significant public safety risk” according to the fact sheet and say the bridge needs substantial structural works.
Council says preliminary estimates for the work suggested it will cost more than $200,000 and confirmed that, even with those repairs, the bridge will not reopen for vehicle use.
Mrs White said the community didn’t necessarily want the existing structure restored or repaired and in fact would be happy with a whole new structure if it could provide a vehicle crossing.
“The issue isn’t about saving the bridge that is there – it’s about having a bridge that will provide vehicle access to the reserve from the centre of town,” she said.
Alternate access to the reserve is via another entrance used primarily by the Wilby Car Club. From the existing Wilby Bridge it requires a detour of more than 2kms, around the far side of the area, to enter via a gravel road; a road which Moira Shire Council has recently resheeted.
“It’s great that council has upgraded that road but that still doesn’t mean we don’t need two points of vehicle access,” Mrs White said.
“The reserve is a large area and in the case of an emergency, should a bushfire come from the west which is what would be most likely, the only access point for vehicles would be cut off.
“And having one access point when the area is busy, for example during the annual Camp Draft when hundreds of people and vehicles access that area, just won’t work.
“Even if a new bridge had a load limit on it so it could be used by cars and heavy vehicles had to use the other access point, that would still provide the access to the reserve that we’ve always had and that we still want.”
Mrs White said if vehicles want to stop at the current bridge and use it for pedestrian access they will have to park their cars on the side of the road.
However there is no suitable parking area on the road side of the bridge and if motorists did park on the other side, off the road in a paddock area, they would then have to walk across an 80km per hour road with limited vision due to an oncoming sweeping bend.
“People aren’t going to stop there if that’s the situation they have to deal with – they just won’t,” Mrs White said.
“Whereas now they can drive into the reserve, park safely, use the facilities and let the kids play on the equipment, knowing they are well away from the main road.”
Mr Henderson told the Yarrawonga Chronicle when considering options to repair or replace the bridge a key aspect was that the rules didn’t allow for the structure to be restored to previous construction standards – rather the bridge would have to comply with contemporary construction standards.
“Officers rejected the idea of removing and not replacing the bridge because of the connection it provides to the town,” Mr Henderson said.
“Replacement of a vehicle bridge presented several major challenges. Firstly the site does not meet modern traffic management requirements to a new site would be required.
“However, the more significant challenge is the extremely competitive environment for state and federal grants. Based on recent experience, the Wilby Bridge is very unlikely to qualify for funding because of its relatively low traffic volumes and existing alternative vehicle access to the reserve.”
Mr Henderson said a recommendation would go before council at Wednesday night’s ordinary meeting to seek funding to restore the bridge to a footbridge as it was originally built.
“We have heard from several members of the Wilby community who have voiced their concerns and said they would prefer a bridge to be built with unrestricted vehicle access,” he said.
“This would be a significant project and the amount of money required would be substantial.
“Council would have to seek funding to undertake this project, which would firstly be subject to the budget submission process and compete with all the other projects going before council and judged in terms of the benefits to the Moira community as a whole.
“Following Wednesday night’s consideration by council we will provide an update to the community.”