By Crispin Hull
He was commenting after calls for expressions of interest (EOI) in the provision of a replacement ferry across the Daintree River and its operation were advertised at the weekend.
“There has categorically been no discussion by councillors of a bridge moving forward,” he said. “The request by members of the community to include a bridge in a consultation previously occurred and the result showed a majority of the community preferred a ferry system.
“The [EOI] invitation says, ‘Douglas Shire Council invites registration to receive expressions of interest documents, from suitably qualified Respondents, for the future supply of a new vessel and the provision of ferry services for the passenger and vehicular transport across the Daintree River in Far North Queensland’.”
The precise configuration and form of the ferry has not been determined.
The expressions-of-interest material says, “Currently, Council has not committed to the format of the ongoing transport service. All reasonable alternatives will be considered.”
However, Mayor Kerr made it clear that those “reasonable alternatives” do not include a bridge.
The advertisement in The Australian said that registration of expressions of interest must be made by 5pm on 18 October 2023 on the Douglas Shire vendor portal which is here: https://douglas.qld.gov.au/business/tenders/
It is a fairly tight timeline, even if expressions of interest do not require detailed work on the project. Moreover, the tight timeframe might mean that some businesses might be unaware of the process until it is too late.
The invitation says, “Douglas Shire Council invites registration to receive expressions of interest documents, from suitably qualified Respondents, for the future supply of a new vessel and the provision of ferry services for the passenger and vehicular transport across the Daintree River in Far North Queensland.
“Douglas Shire Council has decided that an Expression of Interest (EOI) is necessary for the continuing provision of the Daintree Ferry transport service.”
The project has some urgency. The EOI material explains that the existing ferry vessel will require an out-of-water mandatory safety inspection and compliance by 11th March 2028. This is a requirement of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority under its legislation.
The existing ferry would need significant refitting which would mean taking it to Cairns and a lengthy period without transport across the river unless other arrangements are made.
“Continuity of the ferry transport service is required,” the material says. “. . . An interim or permanent solution to the above issue is required well before 11th March 2028. Preferably by the last quarter 2027 at the latest.
“This EOI is a market sounding exercise to determine what transport solutions might be available. There is no intention to utilise this EOI as a shortlisting mechanism for future procurement activities. Rather the intent is to determine feasible future transport solutions to ensure a continuity of service to the community north of the Daintree River. Future procurement activities will potentially be guided by results of this EOI process.”
The ferry issue has had a vexed history and a number of opposing views over the years.
Many people think it has been a wonderful tourist experience, giving travellers to the Daintree (the oldest rainforest in the world) a sense of moving into another time, of moving away from buildings and agriculture and into wilderness.
Others are concerned with the practicality of travelling from home to business or of ensuring reliable supply of goods and services into the Daintree.
Before the 2020 election, a process had begun to ensure reliable services.
The December 2019 Council meeting agreed to the terms of a new contract with Sirron Pty Ltd, the ferry operator. This would have provided one full-time solar-assisted electric ferry as well as an additional ferry to operate in tandem at busy times, and as a spare if the main ferry was out of action.
There would have been no queues during the tourist season. Additionally, using a solar-assisted ferry to cross into the iconic Daintree Rainforest would have been environmentally attractive.
It was expected that Council would complete any further negotiations and execute the contract, but the election of a new Mayor and new councillors stopped that process.
Council then announced that it would exercise the right under the previous contract to buy the existing, old ferry. It did so for $4.5 million which some say was over-valued. Council also lost the $1 million a year that the Sirron, the previous operator was paying for the right to run the ferry service.
Council eventually decided it would build one large ferry with multiple loading and unloading lanes, which would require extensive works both sides of the Daintree River. The estimated cost of the ferry and site works was $6 million.
To move the responsibility of owning and running the ferry away from Council, Cr Roy Zammataro recently succeeded in moving a motion asking for Expressions of Interest from private operators.
This has now happened. Nonetheless, there is still much concern on both sides of the river that it will be illegal for the existing ferry to continue operations after March 2028 without the safety check and that there will be no new ferry ready in time.
Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.