There's light at the end of the tunnel for the towns of Merriwa and Willow Tree with the announcement of a contractor to begin work on rebuilding a key transport route known as Coulsons Creek Road.
In October, the federal government committed to its budget $38.6m to repair the road, which will reconnect the local government areas of Upper Hunter and Liverpool Plains.
Upper Hunter Shire Council mayor, Cr Maurice Collison, said now the funding for the MR358 Merriwa to Willow Tree Road project was secured, and the construction contract has been awarded to the Daracon Group. The project is expected to take 19 months to complete.
The road has been impassable and closed to traffic since January 2021, but Cr Collison said the council is "shovel-ready, all designs have been done, and the funding is in place".
He said the council is expecting Daracon Group to begin its work early in the New Year and thus re-open a key transport link that will cut transport times by up to 45 minutes between the two centres when completed.
Mr Collison said at the council's December 2023 Ordinary Council meeting, it endorsed a project governance model, ensuring transparency and public trust, including a partnership with Transport for NSW, an independent body, for project management services.
"All we need now is for Daracon to pull the trigger and put the machinery in place," he said.
The detour around the closure added about 45 kilometres and frustration for locals, particularly farmers who buy and sell livestock in the Tamworth region and businesses keen for more tourism.
The promised road, described as a "critical livestock freight route", was to be upgraded into a major transport route carrying large trucks and B-Double vehicles.
The state and federal governments have committed a combined $48.3 million more to what the council describes as "rectification works".
The council has awarded a tender, but the funding is further delayed due to a 90-day state government independent review process. A similar process at the federal level was announced on May 9, 2023.