Commuters want public transport, not motorways

WestConnex protesters vent their anger at a rally in in Concord in January.

Drivers on Sydney’s proposed WestConnex motorway will pay a toll for almost 50 years, according to documents released to state parliament last week. Tolls will also be introduced to existing free motorways and extended on those due to expire.

The government’s plans were revealed when boxes of documents relating plans to build the WestConnex motorway were delivered to New South Wales Parliament House last week at the request of the NSW Greens Roads and Ports spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi.

Of the 38 boxes, 16 are privileged, meaning only members of parliament can read them but are forbidden to reveal the contents. These boxes include any material the government feels could be prejudicial to the motorway.

The increasingly unpopular WestConnex is the biggest infrastructure project in Australia’s history. It will consist of a series of tunnels under Sydney's inner west to join the existing M4 to the city, the airport, Port Botany and the M5. This adds up to 33 kilometres of highway, with an estimated cost of $11.8 billion and a 10-year construction timeframe.

A copy of the financing strategy prepared by Macquarie Capital -- which was paid $2.5 million for its work on WestConnex last year and which the government has tried to keep secret -- was included in the documents. The strategy includes selling the right to charge tolls on the existing M5 West until 2060. Tolls on the existing M5 are due to expire in 2026, when the road returns to public ownership.

The Macquarie Capital document says the motorway is expected to cost about $15 billion with inflation by the time it is to be finished in 2023. The federal government has agreed to contribute $1.5 billion and the state government will provide $1.8 billion. Macquarie believes the government can get about $4.8 billion from private sector finance and another $3.3 billion from selling the first stage of WestConnex to run from the M4 at Parramatta to near the City West Link at Ashfield.

There is no indication where the rest of the money is to come from. However, with federal treasurer Joe Hockey urging the states to sell as much of their assets as they can, the privatisation of the state’s electricity generators and Port Botany will look increasingly attractive to a government desperate to fund a motorway few people want.

The documents also highlight the NSW government's awareness of voter sensitivity to road tolls. The media strategy for WestConnex, drawn up in late 2012, cites strong support from News Ltd as essential to the success of the project. The Daily Telegraph, which had "advocated strongly against the perceived unfairness of tolling in the past", has since given its unqualified support to WestConnex.

The documents reveal that neither an environmental impact statement nor accurate usage estimates have been completed, yet more than 100 home owners along the route, many in the heritage-listed suburb of Haberfield, have received compulsory acquisition orders for their properties.

Federal and state Coalition governments are ideologically biased against public transport as the answer to traffic congestion and have reverted to the 1960s idea that more tollways will fix road congestion. The Tony Abbott government has said it will not fund public transport but is happy to give $1.5 billion to NSW for a motorway.

The only way to fix road congestion is to increase public transport. Sydney has an example of how popular public transport can be when it is reliable.

A new light rail extension opened in Sydney’s inner west on March 27, which runs every 10 minutes in peak hour. The service was immediately so popular that in the week it opened the trams were full to capacity at peak times.

Suburban train journeys in Sydney have risen by 11% since 1999. In Perth, train patronage has increased by 500% in the same period, as new lines to Joondalup and Mandurah have been added.

The government’s claim that WestConnex is an integrated transport solution is deceptive. Real integrated transport involves different modes of travel complementing each other to reduce the impact of the journey. In Sydney, this could include park and ride facilities; light rail and cycleways on Parramatta Road; and a full light rail network in western Sydney as a cheaper, more effective and sustainable alternative to WestConnex.

The government claims that because vehicles will not need to stop at traffic lights it will reduce air pollution. Yet its own Strategic Environmental Review estimates that running the WestConnex tunnels alone will use as much electricity as that used to power up to 45,000 homes.

This wasteful use of energy will contribute to global warming and harm air quality through related carbon pollution. The installation of exhaust stacks will also affect air quality throughout metropolitan Sydney and result in a less liveable, more polluted city.

The government’s claims that WestConnex will cut travel times from the western suburbs also do not stand up. Chris Standen of Eco Transit said preliminary traffic analysis indicates that WestConnex will be slower than taking the train is today. For people travelling from western Sydney to Sydney Airport, the trip by car on WestConnex will take 43 minutes longer than the train.

The proposed 13 kilometre tunnel from Strathfield to St Peters will be one of the longest urban road tunnels in the world, raising questions about how drivers will cope with the long stretches underground and what would happen when an accident occurs. Even the NRMA, which is a strong supporter of motorway projects, argues that the new tunnels could be dangerous.

Faruqi has welcomed the release of WestConnex documents, saying: “The thousands of documents accessible to the public have revealed growing concerns within the government agencies that WestConnex is not the right solution for Sydney. Revelations about excessive contractor fees, misrepresentations of traffic forecasting and internal dissent, as reported over the weekend, are a huge cause for concern.

“It’s clear that the case for the WestConnex toll road is falling apart.”