Locals fear a toll road will divide their suburb. Their solution has been dismissed

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Residents living on the northern end of the planned $16.5 billion North East Link want a road trench to be covered to reduce noise and pollution and prevent the toll road from splitting Watsonia in two, cutting people off from shops and public transport.

Janelle Devine said she was horrified by new plans for the mega-highway that showed about 18 lanes of asphalt including service lanes and on-off ramps earmarked for the end of her street.

Stop the Split volunteers want the government to build a 350-metre “lid” over the North East Link in Watsonia. Credit: Justin McManus

“I just felt sick to my stomach. My partner was in shock,” the mother-of-one said. “It’s horrible. Who wants to live next door to an open freeway?”

Victoria’s largest road project will stretch 10 kilometres from Bulleen to Greensborough when it opens in 2028, with 6.5 kilometres of tunnels and a widening of the Eastern Freeway by up to 20 lanes.

Plans show the tollway will emerge from the tunnel just south of the neighbourhood shopping centre in Watsonia, 16 kilometres north-east of the CBD. It will run as an eight-lane road trench along the current alignment of Greensborough Road, next to the Hurstbridge rail line.

Residents who live at the project’s northern end are mobilising in a last-ditch attempt to get the government to commit to building a cover over the trench, as previously proposed by the local council and independent plans drawn up for the site.

Benjamin Biro, a father of three who started the Stop the Split of Watsonia campaign on Facebook, said resident complaints included noise, air pollution, the lack of green space and safety concerns.

They are also worried that Watsonia will be permanently split in two, separating people from shops, services and the train station. Residents say two promised “land bridges” at Elder Street and Watsonia Road were tokenistic and would not lead directly to the central shopping strip.

“This is a once-in-a-generation project and everyone seems to be benefiting except us,” Biro said.

The group wants a 350-metre “lid” to be put over the new highway, which would connect to the proposed bridges at Elder Street and Watsonia Road, resulting in a 500-metre-long cover over the trench. It also wants a green bridge constructed over the Watsonia railway line to be a direct link for Greensborough residents to the shops in Watsonia.

Watsonia locals say the North East Link road trench will divide their community.Credit: North East Link

Almost 400 people have signed a petition lobbying for a cover over the trench. The petition was unanimously supported by Banyule councillors and is to be tabled in parliament.

A spokesperson for the North East Link Project last month argued that a cover over the Elder-Watsonia section would be an eyesore and require a ventilation structure.

But architect and resident Fred Buono, who was previously asked by the council and government to be a local representative on the project and who drew up alternative plans for the site, disputed that.

He said international air quality standards stipulated that any tunnel up to 500 metres did not require forced ventilation. In NSW, for example, forced velitation is not required until the tunnel exceeds 500 metres.

“Therefore, it would be quite feasible to have a 350-metre extra cover for the trench,” Buono said.

Devine, who lives in Nell Street near the edge of Greensborough Road, said that the concerns of residents in other nearby suburbs affected by the North East Link had been listened to.

“Watsonia North are getting a wide, brightly lit underpass. Their section of the plan looks fabulous,” she said.

“Macleod also got their tunnel extended and so it just feels like because we are living in the last section before it meets the Ring Road, it’s a cost-cutting exercise.”

Banyule Mayor Tom Melican said he had been disappointed to see the government’s plans, which showed that at some points the entire project would stretch to 100 metres wide and swell to 18 lanes.

“It will split Watsonia in two, threaten the viability of businesses, and increase noise and visual clutter. We need to build our cities for people, not just cars,” Melican said.

The council has written to the state government requesting a meeting to discuss the plans.

In 2021, the North East Link project extended the underground tunnels by 1.9 kilometres, which saved open and green space in communities further south.

Major Road Projects Victoria chief executive officer Duncan Elliot said the current design was the result of more than five years of “world-class engineering and conversations with the local community”.

“We heard from locals in Banyule that a longer tunnel was the preferred option, and we’ve more than doubled the original length in response,” he said.

He said that land bridges including walking and cycling paths, pedestrian crossings and green spaces were part of the final plans.

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