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Issue #1754      October 26, 2016

WestConnex

The nightmare Baird’s eye view

The massive $16.8 billion WestConnex project involves widening the freeway that runs westwards from Sydney to Parramatta, also boring tunnels from the inner suburb of Haberfield to Rozelle just outside the city centre, then southwards to the airport and west again to link with another tollway.

An protest against WestConnex marches down King Street, Newtown, Sydney.

The Baird government says the scheme will solve Sydney’s traffic woes. But transport specialists predict it will actually increase congestion, because inadequate public transport options will force people to use WestConnex to get to the already-congested city centre.

In London, Paris and other cities, major traffic arteries terminate well outside the city centre, which motorists reach by public transport, preserving the urban character and avoiding congestion. But for Sydney’s WestConnex the government is doing the exact opposite: building new roads right up to the central business district to enable the maximum number of cars to reach it.

With this approach inner city traffic levels will be maximised. So will the number of homes to be demolished, because above-ground construction will occur in the city’s most densely-populated suburbs.

At historic Haberfield, Australia’s first planned “garden suburb”, more than 80 federation cottages have already been destroyed for road widening and tunnel entry construction. Building entry points and massive “spaghetti junction” interchanges at Rozelle and St Peters will involve destroying hundreds of historic inner-city buildings and the intimate character of these areas.

The massive cost, forcible acquisition of homes with inadequate compensation, and massive destruction of homes, heritage properties, trees and parks have caused a well-deserved public uproar.

Phillip Laird, transport engineer and Wollongong University Professor, predicts that within ten years it will be clear “Victoria made the right decision to cancel the East West tollway, while NSW made the wrong decision to build WestConnex.”

An urban cancer

Residents can reject the offer of compensation for losing their homes, but as resident Pauline Locke from the WestConnex Action Group commented last month:

“This process can go on for months before you either accept your RMS [Department of Roads and Maritime Services] offer, or your case goes before the Valuer-General. But … if this happens you will lose your home or business, even though you still haven’t received any compensation. The RMS will start charging you full market rent. And you’ll still have to pay the mortgage on a property you no longer own.

“Baird and his government … know … many will settle for tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars less than they should. … I cannot begin to imagine how badly such a loss will affect people who’ve reached the end of their working lives.

“In my family’s case we now have to take the government to court to have any hope of closing the six-figure gap that exists between its offer and our claim. This will add months to a process that started in November 2014, and has cost up to $140,000 in legal expenses. We’ve also been told that the RMS is likely to evict us from our home next month, months before any demolition in our area begins.”

One unemployed 62-year old resident was offered $960,000 for her St Peters terrace. But nowadays it would cost her well over $1,500,000 to buy an equivalent inner-city house, so she’s lost $540,000 or 36 percent of the value of her only major asset. She’s concluded she’ll have to move out of the city altogether, abandoning friends, family and activities.

Most expensive, most destructive

Since 2012 the government has forcibly acquired more than 1,700 properties for major projects. Thousands of residents have been ruthlessly ejected. WestConnex has claimed 316 homes, with another 111 yet to be taken. Residents have been subjected to extreme stress, and browbeaten if they resist. One resident was told if he didn’t cooperate that day the compensation offer would fall by $70,000.

The compensation report was deliberately withheld because implementing its recommendations would result in more disputes and increase the project’s cost, which has already soared far beyond the original estimate.

The government has grudgingly offered to pay all displaced residents $50,000 on average as compensation for disturbance. It will also allow homeowners to remain rent-free – but only while they’re contesting a compensation offer.

Moreover, it still refuses to accept the recommendation of an independent report (which it refused to release for two and a half years) to pay the market value of the property, as indicated in the Land Acquisition Act.

And it’s still using the full powers of the state to suppress opposition. Last Saturday police surrounded protesters in a proposed construction area with a hastily-erected chain wire fence, and then arrested them for being on a prohibited site.

The government is only interested in providing a transport system that suits the interests of the most powerful elements of the private sector, not the people of the state. All the proposed new road and public transport systems, and some of the existing systems, are to be privately operated.

Motorists who use the existing western motorway for free will have to pay when it’s part of WestConnex, while passengers on the existing City to Bankstown line will undoubtedly cop a whopping fare increase for travelling on the scrawny new single-deck, “stand up all the way”, privately-operated Metro trains that are to replace the superb government-operated double-deckers.

The Baird government’s rigid emphasis on roads, the least efficient means of mass transport, stems from its commitment to the all-powerful vehicle, petroleum, road construction and tollway operation industries; its obsession with high-rise housing stems from its commitment to the major developers.

In the “Baird’s eye view” all the state’s major public and private transport systems would be under private control, with roads the key mode of transport, most city people living in high rise apartments and only the rich living in the inner city.

Major road and building projects would override normal planning provisions, with little restriction on demolition of heritage buildings. Residents forced out would receive grossly inadequate compensation, and construction programs would be funded by selling off the state’s most valuable assets, like Ausgrid, the electricity authority flogged off last week.

To avoid this appalling outcome the people of NSW must rise up against the government and force it from office at the earliest opportunity – and keep the coalition out of power for good.

Next article – Local Unions, Global Voices – Unions WA Conference on Global Inequality

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