Community campaign against WestConnex tollway builds

Issue 
About 3000 people march down King Street in Newtown on February 1 to protest against the WestConnex tollway. Photo: WestConnex A

The stop WestConnex campaign is intensifying heading into the NSW state election.

Apart from the proposed electricity sell-off, it has become one of the top issues, damaging both Liberal and Labor.

The announcement by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore of a WestConnex forum at Sydney Town Hall, set for March 16, has ignited campaigners, and will put the unpopular and expensive plan under further scrutiny.

The WestConnex plan is a collection of tolled motorways, tunnels and road widenings that stretch in a broad horseshoe shape across the inner west and south Sydney. Expected to cost $15 billion, it is the latest incarnation of motorway plans first dreamed up in 1947.

The current campaign has built from 2012 when residents along the route got wind of their homes being compulsorily acquired and when Greens NSW MLC Mehreen Faruqi managed to make public many boxes of previously secret documents that were part of the business case.

Then late last year, the government announced an interchange in St Peters and houses to be acquired there as part of Stage 2. Further, the associated road widening will remove about a hectare of land from the popular Sydney Park and raises the spectre of clearways along King St.

The plan further pushes the car-based domination of the Sydney landscape at the expense of quality public transport. Public transport advocacy groups such as APTNSW and Ecotransit have been carefully explaining several simple and much cheaper alternatives that would be far more effective in reducing congestion and far more ecologically sound.

These suggestions include buying back the private airport stations, a kiss-and-ride facility at Kingsgrove, light rail from Dulwich Hill through Sydenham, Airport, UNSW and Randwick, creating new and connecting existing cycle paths, expanding capacity along the Western heavy rail line, and light rail along Parramatta Road.

Disturbed by the plans and armed with these alternative plans, the community his risen up against WestConnex. The largest events so far have been rally/street party-type happenings in St Peters and the King St Crawl, coordinated by groups including Reclaim the Streets. Their return to the scene with large protests is welcome since their campaigns against the cross-city tunnel and similar events in the 1990s.

Many activist, Facebook and email list-based groups have been active, such as Wolli Creek Preservation Society, WestConnex Action Group and No WestConnex. Smaller acts of civil disobedience have followed, including academic Dr Peter Ross chaining himself to a drill rig and groups managing to temporarily halt exploratory drilling.

Labor presence or support at these events has been conspicuously thin, and noted by many.

The campaign gained increased momentum with the defeat of the Liberal state government in Victoria, after Labor's Daniel Andrews announced they would oppose a similar road project in Melbourne, the East West link. Then Campbell Newman's privatisation agenda in Queensland was defeated and many believe the same thing can be achieved against the Baird Liberal government in NSW.

Regrettably, NSW Labor leader Luke Foley announced that despite pretending to be opposed to WestConnex, Labor is planning to build two-thirds of it, while absurdly deciding to extend the M4 all the way into the city. Hypocritically, Labor candidate for Newtown Penny Sharpe claims to be “saving the inner west”, clearly a last ditch attempt to stop the seat going to the Greens’ Jenny Leong, who has maintained a clear stance of opposition to WestConnex and support for public and active transport options.

As further negative information about WestConnex has come to light, the Westconnex Delivery Authority (WDA) has cancelled nearly all of its“community consultation” sessions.

One that remained was a session before an angry crowd of more than 1000 at the Enmore Theatre, dubbed the “worst gig ever”. WDA head Dennis Cliche refused to properly answer questions, spread half-truths and used straw-man arguments.

Another session in St Peters had heavy security and police were called when residents refused to leave until their questions were satisfactorily answered.

Meanwhile, Moore and the independent group have emerged as a significant establishment voice in the campaign against WestConnex. With great secrecy around the business case, environmental impact, and the absence of satisfactory public information, Moore commissioned an independent report by SGS Economics and Planning. She also spoke out against WestConnex at the King St Crawl and called meetings with local resident groups to gauge public opinion.

The report was released on February 23. It showed that WestConnex was outdated, would not achieve its objectives, does not align with the Metropolitan plan, would not improve access to jobs from western Sydney, would lead to parking and toll charges of up to $48 for a single trip, is not subject to proper governance and independent oversight and that there were rail and other projects that would better achieve the stated objectives.

After requests by local activists, Moore agreed to host a public information forum to explain the report with speakers who would argue against these terrible tollways. It ws set to be held at Sydney Town Hall from 6:30pm on Monday, March 16. It could well be a defining moment in the stop WestConnex campaign, with so much at stake for Sydney and the NSW election.

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