Community groups opposed to the controversial $17 billion WestConnex tollway project have criticised the recent decision by NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) to dismiss the 13,000 objections lodged against the WestConnex M4-M5 Link Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
RMS responses, published by the NSW Department of Planning on February 5, effectively disregarded or rejected serious environmental, health and probity problems with the project.
“Despite constant claims that she is listening, it is now clear that the [Gladys] Berejiklian government is only paying lip service to the environmental impact assessment process in its haste to bulldoze this toxic tollway through,” WestConnex Action Group spokesperson Anne Picot said on February 7.
“RMS has dismissed serious concerns raised by the EPA [Environmental Protection Authority], NSW Health and the community about the increased levels of PM 2.5, a known carcinogen, close to schools and densely populated areas, and the cumulative health impacts on residents of years more of non-stop construction. We know there has been widespread failure of contractors to comply with the approval conditions to the first two stages of WestConnex intended to provide some protection for residents in construction zones.”
Picot said: “RMS is asking the Department of Planning to approve a concept design without in any way addressing the serious health impacts raised by the EPA and NSW Health, or providing additional protection for residents, leaving it to private contractors to self regulate construction impacts.
“NSW Minister for Planning Anthony Roberts can’t now in good conscience approve Stage 3. It is unacceptable for residents living with 24/7 construction and sleepless nights for years to be considered collateral damage to the government's political agenda.
“For the minister to approve this plan and ignore the concerns of the EPA and NSW Health makes a mockery of the planning process designed to protect residents and the environment.”
Meanwhile, leaked NSW Cabinet documents reveal the government is planning additional tolls to help pay for its Sydney Gateway, the final stage of the WestConnex puzzle. The $1.8 billion Airport Gateway, connecting the St Peters WestConnex interchange to Sydney Airport, is expected to be completed in 2023.
Documents seen by the ABC and Fairfax show that while $1.2 billion is to be budgeted through WestConnex funding, $600 million in road-building costs remain unsourced. The papers advised the NSW government to consider additional funding sources, such as new fees, or levies on freight activities in the area and additional tolls on airport-bound vehicle trips through the Gateway.
The government will face high costs for acquisition of land near the airport to accommodate the new road and surroundings. While it will impose compulsory acquisition of residential and commercial property, the Sydney Airport Corporation (SAC) will drive a hard bargain because it has legislative authority over its land.
The SAC is expected to demand a nearby land swap to replace any property foregone for the Gateway construction. The documents estimate a cost to NSW taxpayers of at least $550 million for the acquisitions.
In a further damaging revelation, another document leaked to Fairfax showed traffic on the newly widened M4 dropped by 32% in the first full week tolls were reintroduced in August last year, compared with average volumes in the previous weeks.
Motorists avoided the tolls by using nearby free alternatives such as Parramatta Road, causing increased congestion. Tolls were removed from the M4 in 2010 and their reintroduction is hugely unpopular, especially with commuters from Western Sydney.
The leaked figures show an average of about 1 million weekly trips on the Parramatta-Homebush section of the M4, with a (current) toll of $4.56 each way. That adds up to $4.5 million a week or about $234 million a year. The reported cost of the widening was about $500 million — taking about two years to recoup.
Further outrage has been provoked by revelations that the private owner of WestConnex — once the NSW government sells it — will be raking in toll revenue for 40 years, gouging Western Sydney commuters more than $10 billion over the proposed toll period.
No wonder there is a growing momentum of opposition in the West, not only to the M4 rip-off, but to the entire WestConnex project.
This upsurge of protest is expected to be expressed at the Fix NSW Transport rally on Saturday February 17, at 2pm, at the Archibald Fountain, Hyde Park North.