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Issue #1716      January 27, 2016

WestConnex monstrosity threatens inner Sydney

Just before Christmas the NSW Baird government released the environmental impact statement for the second stage of the proposed WestConnex motorway. Public responses must be received by February, effectively minimising the time available for the public to prepare comments.

WestConnex would connect two existing motorways and run underground eight kilometres eastward from Concord via Haberfield to Rozelle, two kilometres west of the city, then five kilometres south to St Peters, then seven kilometres southwest to Kingsgrove. The proposal is accompanied by proposed mandatory zoning to allow high-rise residential development adjacent to WestConnex and other transport corridors.

The proposal would involve construction of gargantuan above-ground spaghetti-junction interchanges at St Peters and Rozelle, plus the removal of 350 mature trees, 14,000 square metres of the magnificent award-winning Sydney Park, and a huge strip of historic Ashfield Park.

The project would necessitate the compulsory purchase and demolition of 118 houses and other buildings, many with historic significance, plus a huge increase in traffic and pollution in Green Square, Alexandria, Ashmore and historic Haberfield, Erskineville, St Peters, Newtown, Redfern and Rozelle.

Euston Road on the eastern boundary of Sydney Park would become a six lane highway carrying 50,000 vehicles each day – a tenfold increase in car numbers and pollution for a threefold increase in capacity. Much of that traffic would enter historic King Street, Newtown, which is already a bottleneck.

The planned spaghetti-junction interchanges at St Peters and Rozelle.

A bridge to profit

Last week consultants working for the Sydney Motorway Corporation, which is running the WestConnex project, floated the idea of converting the deck of Sydney’s Anzac Bridge and the western freeway approaches to the city into a public park linked to the adjacent foreshores.

This might seem insane, given that the bridge and freeway approaches, which were constructed within the last 25 years, now carry most of the traffic from the western suburbs into the city or northwards over the Harbour Bridge. But it’s a very appealing prospect for private corporations involved in the WestConnex project.

The Anzac Bridge is located less than a kilometre from the motorway’s proposed exit in Rozelle, and the freeway approaches feed directly into the northern side of Sydney’s central business district.

The consultants say that building the Anzac Bridge was a mistake, and that the government is now interested in making “a minor adjustment to the current freeway proposals”, i.e. extending the WestConnex tunnel from Rozelle, to link it with the Cross City Tunnel, the Harbour Bridge and a new harbour road tunnel.

Implementation of this stupendously avaricious idea would cost the public billions of dollars and give private operators the right to toll approximately 100,000 motorists each day for trips they now enjoy free of charge, with no improvement in the service.

A phoney argument

The government’s WestConnex proposal is the end result of a logical process based on the false premise that people travelling into cities or inner suburbs prefer to use private vehicles, and that governments should facilitate this by constructing motorways big enough to meet the demand.

This ignores the fact that vehicles, which usually carry only one or two passengers, are an extremely inefficient means of transport compared to Sydney’s highly popular public transport system. Moreover, extra capacity provided by new or extended motorways is soon swallowed up by an increase in vehicles using the system.

The exception, of course, is where the toll imposed is so high that motorists shun the motorway and return to the old congested free-to-use roads, leaving taxpayers with a massive bill and no improvement in the situation. That happened with Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel, whose two operators went broke before the government finally sold it at rock-bottom price to another corporation.

Constructing motorway tunnels certainly facilitates access to city centres, but the construction costs are astronomical, and their profitability is reliant on maximum use with no competition from public transport. This inevitably leads to an increase in vehicles entering the city, plus traffic gridlock and pollution.

The government is improving public transport, but not near motorway routes. Moreover, rail transport allocations are dwarfed by allocations for motorways, and changes to Sydney’s rail systems have a long term focus on introducing private operation rather than optimising service to the public – even where this involves gross inefficiency, as in the new privately-run Metro rail system, whose engineering design is entirely different from that of the main rail network.

Taxpayers to foot the bill

WestConnex’s anticipated cost has rocketed from $10 billion to $16.8 billion. The government’s estimated fee for a WestConnex trip is at least $16, but the Greens say that given the construction costs the fee would have to be $26 to break even.

The Australian National Audit Office has claimed the Abbott government inflated the national deficit by transferring $1.5 billion for construction of Victoria’s East West link motorway, despite advice the payment was premature. The state and federal governments have now committed funding prematurely to WestConnex, even though the design is incomplete.

The Sydney Motorway Corporation intends to raise finance by introducing tolls to sections of Sydney’s motorways that are currently free, and imposing a new toll on other sections when their current toll period expires.

The government claims that cutting a current 20 minute trip on the existing inner-city roads by nine minutes justifies spending $16.8 billion on WestConnex, and that the project could be completed within eight years.

Properties are already being compulsorily acquired, and home owners are complaining bitterly that the compensation offered is well below the market value of their property. In February 2014 consultants completed a report on the compensation system, but the government has so far refused to release it to the public. It claims that the Sydney Motorway Corporation does not have to obey Freedom of Information laws because it’s a private corporation, even though its two shareholders are government ministers.

But no amount of cover-up can conceal the government’s real intention to transfer control of a huge chunk of the state’s publicly-owned road networks to private corporations, at an astronomical cost to the taxpayer, with a heightened risk of gridlock and massive pollution, and with no long-term solution to the city’s transport problems.

Next article – TPP – a threat to financial and economic stability

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