Could the Mountains be home to Australia's longest road tunnel?
The NSW government is actively looking at joining two tunnels planned for Blackheath and Mt Victoria to create an 11-kilometre underground route from the eastern edge of Blackheath right through to Little Hartley at the bottom of Victoria Pass.
Regional transport and roads minister, Paul Toole, revealed on Monday that the government was looking at the feasibility of the plan and expected to learn within about 12 months if it would be possible.
He was in Blackheath, announcing that the town will get a 4.5-kilometre long tunnel, an outcome which many residents had campaigned for. This option - unlike a shorter alternative - avoids the need to compulsorily acquire any homes.
The tunnel will enter from the east near Evans Lookout Road, on National Parks land, and emerge near the heavy vehicle weighing station.
It comes on the back of Mr Toole's announcement last month that a four-kilometre tunnel under Mt Victoria was "locked in". Previous plans for that village had involved a series of short tunnels, viaducts and cuttings to get from the top of the Mountains down to the plains.
"The NSW government knows how important this upgrade is to the people who use the Great Western Highway every day and in improving connections between Sydney and the Central West, which is why we committed $2.5 billion to deliver a once-in-a-generation upgrade to this key corridor," said Mr Toole, the MP for Bathurst.
"As part of this upgrade, we've already committed to a 4.5-kilometre tunnel to bypass Blackheath and a 4-kilometre tunnel underneath Victoria Pass, one of the steepest roads in NSW.
"We're now investigating connecting those two proposed tunnels into one longer tunnel. This would be a history-making project, delivering Australia's longest road tunnel and allow motorists to avoid all the current pinch points from Blackheath in the east to Little Hartley on the western side of Victoria Pass."
Mr Toole said he expected to know by mid-2022 if the plan was feasible or not.
The announcement of a long tunnel for Blackheath was welcomed by members of the co-design committee who had worked with TfNSW on the plans. Several thanked Mr Toole on Monday for genuinely listening to the community and suggested the process should provide a model to be used on other road projects around the state.
The Blackheath Highway Action group was also pleased at the outcome. President Michael Paag said: "Today's commitment by the NSW Government for a 4.5km tunnel under Blackheath is a great result for our community. Many people have worked very hard to achieve this and we thank the NSW Government for acting on our concerns.
"That the NSW Government is looking at combining the proposed 4km tunnel under Mount Victoria with the proposed 4.5km tunnel under Blackheath, making an 11km tunnel is welcomed. However we believe they should consider a longer tunnel to bypass Medlow Bath given the current four lanes through Medlow proposal does not address the concerns of residents and tourism operators."
Medlow Bath residents continue to agitate for a better result for their village. A number of them lined the highway on Monday morning as Mr Toole made his way from Bathurst to the city, holding signs urging the state government and TfNSW to build a tunnel from Katoomba to Hartley. Similar signs are displayed beside the highway.
They have argued that current plans for a four-lane highway would destroy the ambience of Medlow Bath and its star attraction, the historic Hydro Majestic Hotel.