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Shifting baselines and the saga of a new Bribie bridge

Comment by Dr Ben Diggles

My main area of expertise as a marine biologist is centred around the health of aquatic animals and their environment. Usually, I would be writing about our community efforts to try to restore the degraded marine environment around Bribie and in the Pumicestone Passage. But, today I thought I’d voice a few observations regarding discussions in this newspaper (and elsewhere) about the purported need for a new Bribie bridge.

From what I am seeing and hearing about the matter, we have an example of ‘shifting baselines’, a phrase which was first coined by fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly in the 1990’s to describe situations when newer generations are not aware of the gradual changes in the condition of the natural environment, due to their lack of experience of past conditions. Because of shifting baselines, each generation regards a progressively poorer natural world as normal.

On one side of the debate are many of the long-time residents of Bribie, who have seen the Island population grow and change over the decades. These people know what has been gained from the convenience of a bridge, but they also know what has been lost in relation to environmental and lifestyle values, whether on the Island itself or below the water out of sight, out of mind. Some of the former may even be old enough to remember times before the bridge, when they were passengers on ferries like the Koopa or Doomba. Others may remember coming over on the vehicular barge which was used before the Bribie bridge was built in the early 1960’s, opening in 1963, when Bribie’s population was about 700 people. Being locals, they might even have been miffed by the bridge toll of 10 shillings (about $1 for a return trip), which was an exorbitant price at the time (equivalent to about $17 in today’s money). But of course, the fishing back then was fantastic and clearly many people did think the toll was worth it.

Back in the good old days when tolls were removed once a public asset was paid off, it’s certainly fair to say that older generations worked hard for the original Bribie bridge, paying it off within 12 years. So, since 1975, crossing the Bribie bridge has been free to all, which has lead to what has been in many respects a ‘free for all’ when it comes to development on the Island and its surrounds. The reluctance of many older residents to support a new bridge is therefore understandable, based on their past experience. They know there is

a very high risk that construction of a four-lane highway over to the Island itself will be a catalyst for even more development, leading to further loss of identity as Bribie risks completing its gradual transition from a special place surrounded by pristine, fish filled waters to just another suburb of Brisbane.

On the other hand, we have the pro-bridge group, many of whom appear to be relatively recent arrivals to the Island. Some may even have been part of the most recent ‘post-Covid’ influx, which has resulted in a noticeably increased strain on local infrastructure. These people may not be aware of what ‘the Island’ was like back in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s, before the need for traffic lights. They only know that traffic jams are now a commonplace issue on Bribie, especially when the Sandstone Point Hotel (est. 2015) has an event, which seems to be the main problem with the bridge approaches in most situations. They think its normal that finding a parking space at the local shopping centre is a bit of a lottery. For bridge proponents, having a new bridge and approaches which can allow access to and from the Island if an accident occurs on the other bridge, is the answer to these problems. But is it? I can’t help but wonder where will all those free-flowing cars go once they get off the new bridge?

And why is this new bridge planned to be four metres higher above the water than the previous one – to accommodate sea level rise due to climate change? Given that it appears inevitable that we are locked in for at least a 2°C temperature rise over the next 50 years, with the projected sea level rise of 60-100cm that would accompany this, perhaps we should be planning an orderly retreat from Bribie Island, rather than developing a new bridge that will allow developers to cram even more stuff onto an already crowded, yet low lying and fragile sand Island? Is ‘Bribie with dykes’, the ‘Southern Venice’ supposed to be the new tourist mecca of 2100?

Of course, the world is not black and white and many people do not fit the ‘for’ and ‘against’ stereotypes I have described above and to them I apologise in advance. As both a marine scientist and Bribie Island resident of 20 years, who began visiting the Island in the 1970’s, I see both sides of this issue, but I also think about what is happening under the water. The original bridge has a finite engineering lifespan and will not last forever. It will need to be replaced eventually, but while more reliable vehicular access to the Island is a great concept, I can’t see how a new bridge will reduce traffic congestion. All those cars need to go somewhere, but surely yet another new set of traffic lights at the Sandstone Point end of the bridge won’t help with that.

On the other hand, improved pedestrian and bike riding access over the new bridge, or even using the old bridge as a dedicated ‘active transport’ corridor would be a much greater benefit for locals.

So, swings and (possibly more) roundabouts, but it’s notable that the preliminary design plans for a new bridge have failed to grasp a golden opportunity for a ‘win-win’ with the design of underwater pylons and provision of other structures that could IMPROVE the marine environmental situation. Why has the preliminary bridge design failed to provide any purpose designed underwater reef habitat for fishes and shellfish, as well as dedicated fishing platforms to access them? The old Bribie bridge is still a very popular fishing platform, even though it was never designed as such. If we are to build a new bridge, why not make sure it caters to all recreational users, including recreational fishers and why not try to do so in a way that offsets some of the environmental damage that will undoubtedly continue to occur because of it? I suggested as much during the original requests for comments on bridge design, but it seems the engineers have largely ignored these marine environmental aspects below the waterline, even though they represent (please forgive the pun) the lowest of the ‘low hanging fruit’.

For too long what has been happening under the water in Pumicestone Passage has been ignored. Marine Parks legislation prevents restoration of lost shellfish reefs in Pumicestone Passage, which means that water quality and fish habitat is continuing to decline. Construction of a new Bribie bridge is possibly one of our few opportunities to improve it. The recent rain event in late January 2024 was accompanied by yet more fish kills in Pumicestone Passage, a sure sign of precipitous environmental decline. So what good is provision of even more pelican perches on the lights of the new bridge, when our iconic pelicans themselves have fewer and fewer fish to eat as each year goes by? Yes, they might have a place to sit, but will future Bribie pelicans have anything to eat?

Of course, the political side of this debate is understandably prominent, as any new bridge will cost a large amount of money.

Is it fair for Queensland taxpayers to dig so deep into their pockets if a new bridge will benefit access for only a couple of tens of thousands of Island residents? Where does a new Bribie bridge stand in the whole scheme of things throughout Queensland when it comes to prioritising spending of hard-earned taxpayer monies?

Remember, in the modern world ‘user pays’ is king. As pointed out by local historian Barry Clark in his excellent article on the 60-year anniversary of the Bribie Bridge (from which I have borrowed several of the historical facts and figures herein), a new bridge will be built sometime, somewhere. It is a matter of history that previous generations paid for the old Bribie bridge out of their own pockets. I know a toll for the new bridge is supposed to be out of the question, but I still wonder. Would so many people still be happy to advocate for a whizz-bang new Bribie bridge with all the bells and whistles if it had a $17 toll?


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