By Kirra Grimes
TRAFFIC came to a standstill in Wonthaggi last Thursday as community members took to the streets to call for a pedestrian crossing on Biggs Drive, near the Murray Street intersection.
The leader of the demonstration, long-time Wonthaggi resident Sue Rutherford, has been campaigning for years to improve safety for the senior citizens and disability service participants who must cross the busy road to access resources including the library and Mitchell House.
A member of self-advocacy group ‘New Wave Bass Coast,’ Sue organised the public protest after requests to Bass Coast Shire Council and VicRoads at the beginning of the year were left unfulfilled.
Around 40 people, many of them participants of disability service Connecting2Australia, joined Sue in drawing attention to the issue once again last week, with placards and chants making their presence felt at the intersection.
Sue told the Sentinel-Times she suffered from panic attacks and found it impossible to navigate the increasingly heavy traffic on Biggs Drive on her own.
“I have trouble all the time,” she said. “I feel a lot of anxiety, so I have to ask people to help me; I have to hang on to someone.”
But Sue wasn’t just in it for herself, saying she wanted to make it easier for people in wheelchairs, people with walking frames, and parents pushing prams to cross too, on a zebra crossing similar to one nearby, opposite Woolworths.
She hoped the protest would make a difference, after an unsatisfactory response from authorities.
“They heard what we had to say but they didn’t do anything about it,” Sue said.
Connecting2Australia support worker Suzie explained further: “Council looked into it, then told Sue to put it forward to VicRoads. So she wrote to VicRoads, who said it had nothing to do with them because it’s a council road. Hence the protest,” Suzie said.
Bass Coast Shire Cr Geoff Ellis, who attended the protest, confirmed the debate between Council and VicRoads on just who was responsible for the road was ongoing.
“We need to do something and we need to work together, but the conversation keeps going awry,” he said, adding that there were other accessibility issues in Wonthaggi’s CBD that needed addressing, and would require significant funding, including the location of and lack of accessible toilets at the V/Line bus stop on Biggs Drive.
Another issue raised at the protest was the difficulty of getting wheelchairs across Graham Street, near the intersection with Billson Street, due to the angle of the footpath where it meets the road.
Connecting2Australia participant Kristy McLean brought this matter to Council’s attention at the same time Sue made her presentation about the intersection, and Council responded by upgrading the tactile indicators on the offending section of footpath.
But this has not solved the problem, with Connecting2Australia participant Lee Witton demonstrating at last week’s protest the persisting hazard outside the NAB bank, where wheelchairs routinely get stuck on the edge of the road.
“We spoke to engineers about it and it’s a big bit of work that would need to go into the next budget,” Cr Ellis said of the footpath issue.
When contacted for comment, Council’s General Manager of Place Making, James Stirton, said Council officers would be meeting with representatives from Connecting2Australia this month to discuss what improvements to wheelchair access could be made as part of Council’s annual renewal program.
In relation to the intersection, he said the draft Wonthaggi Activity Centre Plan included a range of actions aimed at improving pedestrian movement around the CBD.
“The plan was recently released for community comments and a lot of the feedback we received was in relation to the Biggs and Murray intersection and access around the town more broadly,” Mr Stirton said.
The outcomes of the Activity Centre Plan consultation will be presented to Council at its December meeting.
VicRoads was contacted for comment.