IS the Hartley Valley an appropriate route for a high speed highway enhancement or should Minister Paul Toole and the Transport for NSW be considering less 'invasive' alternatives?
The Hartley District Progress Association firmly believes the valley proposal is wrong in so many ways and they want the government to look again at workable alternatives proposed in the past.
And, they ask, is the proposed work for Hartley really even necessary.
TfNSW is pressing ahead with a project to duplicate the Great Western Highway (GWH) between Katoomba and Lithgow with the major components tunnels beneath Blackheath and Mt Victoria and into the Hartley Valley.
Billions in Federal and State funding has been allocated.
And no secret has been made of the intention to accommodate even bigger transport vehicles.
Seen as all important is the elimination of the notorious Govetts Leap Road bottleneck that results in lengthy disruption at ever increasing frequencies and the tunnel is seen as the least invasive option
The highway between Katoomba and Blackheath is also winding and hazardous and this section is also presenting concerns with just how the highway can be widened through Medlow Bath village without serious destruction
Those residents also want a tunnel extended to Blackheath.
But it's the historic Hartley Valley that is now the focal point of opposition, just as it has been in past roadworks proposals.
There's no denying the valley is a jewel on the Australian landscape and locals fear it would be ruined by a four lane high speed motorway and a tunnel portal.
According to Progress Association president Renzo Benedet the highway plans 'lack strategic thinking'.
"We have seen how the Hume Highway and the Pacific Highway have contributed economically to regional economies through designing roads which by-pass townships. Freight growth has responded accordingly. But we do not see the same strategic thinking for the Great Western Highway," Mr Benedet said.
"Moving people and freight to and from the Central West in the years ahead in the most efficient, safe and environmentally responsible way, while protecting local communities, must be the priority. Using the current GWH alignment will not achieve this and that is why the Newnes Plateau option should be re-considered."
The plan even involves two truck stops each the length of three football fields (300 metres) in the valley.
He says the impact on the environment and expenditure of billions of dollars can not realistically be justified for a time saving of an estimated 10 minutes between Lithgow and Sydney.
He believes the work west of Mt Victoria is not even a priority with present traffic conditions.
Mr Benedet wants Minister Toole and TfNSW to again consider a suggestion, rejected in the past, to route the highway deviation from Mt Victoria to Bell via Darling Causeway and across Newnes Plateau to a merging point near the Castlereagh Highway junction at Marrangaroo.
It would eliminate the need for a costly tunnel and environmental impact in the valley with no property acquisition necessary.
It would also mean that the GWH through the Hartley Valley, Bowenfells and Lithgow would become a tourist road and an attraction in its own right bringing increased tourism to the Lithgow region and three of its Seven Valleys (Kanimbla, Hartley and Lithgow). Currently the Hartley Valley is a tourist destination with the Lolly Bug, Ambermere Inn and the Historic Hartley Court House among the significant tourist attractions. Meanwhile, Lithgow's cafe and tourist scene has taken off with patronage from Sydney and is set to increase with the Destinations Pagoda initiative.
But while the Newnes Plateau option may well be feasible it might not be welcomed by businesses in Bowenfels and Lithgow who rely heavily on through traffic from both the Great Western Highway, Bells Line and Castlereagh Highway.
"As long ago as 1994, an RMS study of Berrima and Mittagong found that in Berrima, tourism took off once its historic charms were unblemished by heavy traffic. While Mittagong at first suffered from a loss of traffic-serving business, there was every expectation that people would adjust their choices of where to live and spend money when towns became more appealing.
"Lithgow has already seen a significant increase in tourism as more people discover its natural beauty and until recently hidden charms. Lithgow is also the last major town before the long wind through the Blue Mountains to Sydney and a perfect staging post for the last leg of that journey."
The proposed upgrade of the GWH from Katoomba to Lithgow at an enormous cost to the taxpayer will devastate the rural landscape of the historic Hartley Valley and not achieve the best long-term solution for the Central West.
"With up to $8 billion in taxpayer funds envisaged for the upgrade and a possible time saving of only 10 minutes, the Newnes Plateau route from Mt Victoria or Mt Boyce to Marrangarro becomes a more practical option," Mr Benedet said.
"With the amount of tunnelling proposed for the GWH upgrade we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to get a real transport solution for the Central West.
"Diverting the highway via the Newnes Plateau becomes a cheaper alternative as it saves more than 4km of tunnel works and without the need for a massively engineered upgrade through the Hartley Valley.
"It also provides for better and safer long-term traffic flow, avoids multiple speed limits and delivers less intrusion on local communities."
Current planning of the proposed upgrade will see construction of the Hartley Valley and Medlow Bath sections undertaken first, with the Blackheath tunnel to be done as the last stage.
Traffic bottlenecks along the existing highway are frequent, especially at Blackheath and resolution of this pinch point should be the priority of the upgrade. With the Blackheath tunnel to be carried out last, Mr Benedet believes the ongoing traffic bottleneck will remain for years to come.
The Hartley Valley, Forty Bends, River Lett Hill and Victoria Pass have all had safety upgrades and road widening in recent years at a cost to the taxpayer of $133.2 million.
"If the current Concept Design of the new highway through the Hartley Valley is proceeded with, it will be disastrous for the Valley," Mr Benedet said.
"The Concept Design resembles an equivalent Sydney based expressway through a pristine Valley with a 110km/h design speed with multiple overhead bridge structures.
"The Valley will be the only section of road from Emu Plains to Lithgow with such a high design speed and all of this, for a time saving of a mere 58 seconds."
Mr Benedet said the twin 300-metre-long heavy truck stops will bring increased safety risks for motorists, limited access for residents to move within and around the Valley, greater noise and other environmental impacts and, complex interchanges threatening European and Aboriginal heritage and local businesses.
"It is clear the upgrade through the Valley is over engineered and not fit for purpose in the rural surrounds - the local community will not accept it," he said.
The HDPA held two information sessions for the local community in May 2021 to brief them on the implications of the current Concept Design (a 2013 design). This was followed by a local community survey in June 2021 identifying and rating the key issues of concern.
Mr Benedet said the HDPA organised the information sessions for the local community because there has been silence from the bureaucracy since late 2019.
"We have asked Transport for NSW to provide an urgent briefing to and consult with the Valley community on the status of the upgrade design and to answer the many concerns which locals have," he said.
"Clearly this is not good enough by any standard of accountability or proper community engagement. Besides writing to TfNSW, HDPA has also written to local State and Federal Members and Lithgow Council.
"This whole issue requires collaboration across the board and a willingness and commitment to engage and work with the local community as a matter of urgency.
"We need to find the solutions and by way of example, reducing the design speed from 110km/h to the current 80km/h would do away with much of the complexity and cost of the design."
Many across the regional community will be watching the next chapter with interest.