Traffic snarls as Newcastle's light rail work starts in Hunter Street

It was one extreme or the other as construction of Newcastle’s light rail network began on Tuesday.

Traffic crawled through detours in the CBD on the first morning of a three-month closure of Hunter Street – between Auckland and Darby streets.

There were anecdotal reports that travel times across the city had doubled for some people as motorists tried to work out the best route for their daily commute.

But when the Herald spoke with some business owners on Tuesday, they described the lack of cars on the closed stretch of Hunter Street as being like a ghost town.

George Fellas, who has owned Civic Lunch Delights for 14 years, said he had noticed a customer drop of about 20 per cent on the first morning of work.

Mr Fellas said he was supportive of the light rail project, but was concerned about the impact on his business and five employees – who all had mortgages.

“We just have to ride it out and eat the cost,” he said.

“There’s not that much we can do. I’m glad they are starting now – the sooner they start, the sooner they will get the job done. I’m confident it will be a benefit to the whole town.”

Revitalising Newcastle program director Michael Cassel said construction in the zone, near Civic Theatre, was expected to finish by the end of the year.

He said pedestrian access would be maintained for businesses during the work.

“For people who live, work and play in the city centre, light rail construction means some traffic changes, and we are asking road users to take this into account when planning their trip,” Mr Cassel said. “We expect traffic impacts to settle down a little once road users get used to the changes and find the best route for them, and we thank road users for their patience.”

Blue Door Cafe owner Peter James said he was willing to put up with the inconvenience for the betterment of the city. But he said it was important that work finished on schedule, before Christmas, so he could take advantage of his business’s busiest time of year.

“We’re happy to work with the crew and try to make it as smooth as possible and try to stay as positive as possible,” he said.

“Is it going to cause us headaches in the meantime over the short-term period? Yes it is. Hopefully it goes as planned. If they don’t stick to the time-frames then they are going to have a very disappointed business owner here.”

Hunter Business Chamber CEO Bob Hawes said it was imperative that the work on the project remain on time “to minimise any negative impacts that arise as a consequence of the traffic restrictions in the zone”.

“We note the special car parking arrangements and that pedestrian access is being maintained and implore shoppers and business patrons to be patient and to maintain their custom of businesses through this period,” Mr Hawes said.

Joseph Baker, who manages Hunter Street cafe The Press Book House, said he had a positive outlook.

“I don’t mind at all – it’s all for the better,” he said.