Four years after a contentious bypass opened around Penola, locals appear to agree that it has improved the amenity of the South Australian town, even if the road safety benefits are yet to be realised.

The bypass to the west of Penola, located about 380 kilometres south-east of Adelaide, opened in April 2020 after decades of debate.

It also came just before COVID-19 restrictions were imposed on hospitality businesses like the Coonawarra region’s famous wineries and restaurants.

Border restrictions with Victoria also hurt local tourism businesses.

The main call for the Riddoch Highway bypass came from the Wattle Range Council because of concerns about the number of trucks using Penola’s main street and an expected influx of tourists after the Catholic nun Mary MacKillop was made Australia’s first saint.

The bypass directs drivers away from Penola.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Figures from SA’s Department for Infrastructure and Transport show the number of vehicles that use Penola’s main street — Church Street — each day fell from 4,400 in 2012 to 2,600 in 2022.

The number of semi-trailers and larger trucks using the street fell from 235 to 60.

Riddoch Business and Community Association president Emma Castine said there was “no denying that we’re missing the numbers because people just keep driving through” but that Penola was now “much more peaceful and safe”.

“COVID and the bypass opening at once was a real slap in the face for the town,” she said.

She added that due to campaigns on social media and events in Penola, “we’ve certainly got our vibe back now”.

Emma Castine says Penola has bounced back from the bypass’ negative effects.(ABC South East SA: Eugene Boisvert)

Businesses take a hit

Jill Mooney shut down her bric-a-brac and vintage clothing business Jill’s Vintage last October after 15 years in the town’s old post office.

She has turned to online trade and pop-ups, saying trading on the main street was not what it used to be.

“Well, COVID and the bypass has made a real difference to the town. A lot of shops are shutting down,” Ms Mooney said.

Jill’s Vintage was replaced by POPO, a sparkling wine cellar door opened by Peta Baverstock earlier this year.

Peta Baverstock sells her Cuvée-Co wines from her cellar door on Church Street.(Supplied)

Ms Baverstock said she probably would have opened in Church Street, even without the bypass in place, but it did make the town safer for her two sons.

“I really do feel that it has changed the feel of Penola,” she said.

“It does feel safer in the sense that we have two primary schools within the vicinity of Penola and a local community swimming pool, so I feel that there is more foot traffic and that it’s [reduced] that hesitation to allow your kids to ride their bikes around and things like that.”

A fight worth having

Bill Murray led a campaign against the bypass route on behalf of the Penola and District Residents and Ratepayers Association that went all the way to the High Court.

The association had argued that the council should not have allowed the bypass to go through the Penola Common but the Supreme Court upheld the council’s decision and was backed by the High Court.

Bill Murray says the main street is still hard to cross for the elderly.(ABC South East SA: Eugene Boisvert)

Mr Murray said the town “almost died” after the bypass opened and pandemic restrictions hit but, in the past 12 months, things had bounced back.

He said it was “certainly worthwhile” fighting the route chosen for the bypass.

“Communities have to fight for what they believe and I believe it’s important they are allowed to do that and have a say in what they think is best for their community,” Mr Murray said.

“Although it cost the community and several individuals an awful lot of money, it’s always worthwhile fighting, even if you don’t win the fight, because you can sleep at night and say, ‘Well, we tried our best, we lost out, we accept the verdict. Let’s get on with life and make it work in the new environment’.”

Calls for more improvements

There has been one fatal crash on the bypass since it opened — in February last year — along with several crashes in which people were injured.

Last month, two people died in a crash about three kilometres south of the start of the bypass.

Ms Castine said a roundabout at the intersection of the Riddoch Highway and Clay Wells Road could improve safety. 

“We’d love to see a roundabout at the corner there because it would just be enough to slow people down and click their brain into gear … and it would make it safer to get across that Robe road,” she said.

The bypass cuts through the vineyards of the Coonawarra.(ABC South East SA: Eugene Boisvert)

Mr Murray said the speed limit in the main street could be reduced from 50 to 40 kilometres per hour to make it safer for elderly people to cross.

“It is getting busier,” he said.

Parker Coonawarra Estate owner Jonathon Hesketh said the bypass left heavy, high-speed traffic going through the middle of the Coonawarra district’s wineries, mixing with slow-moving tourist vehicles.

“Our view is it would have been better if it had gone and been diverted to the north of the Coonawarra township rather than in front of Penola,” he said.

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