Fremantle takes the fight to the freeway

Rally in November last year.

A decision by the Fremantle City Council at its March 26 meeting to reject a Main Roads WA request to voluntarily hand over land began a dramatic new phase in the campaign against the state government's freeway building agenda.

The state government wants to replace a section of High Street on the eastern approach to Fremantle with a freeway at a cost of more than $100 million. This is intended to be the first link in their plan to build a six lane "freeway standard" route connecting the Kwinana Freeway to the Fremantle container port.

There is general consensus in the community and on the council that the existing road needs to be modified to make it safer and to create a more efficient intersection with the Stirling Highway. However the scale and destructiveness of the government's proposal has galvanised fierce opposition.

Main Roads proposes to flank the length of the road with concrete "sound walls". These are not high enough to significantly reduce noise pollution, but will completely separate adjoining suburbs and dramatically reduce pedestrian and bicycle connectivity. Up to half a dozen commonly used crossing points would be replaced with one pedestrian overpass.

At the council meeting, Socialist Alliance councillor Sam Wainwright described it as "cutting a swathe through the community like the Berlin Wall." Fellow councillor Andrew Sullivan described the design as "crap", adding, "I could have designed something better in half a day."

The proposed route would cause the destruction of about 200 trees, including a significant stand of mature Tuarts. Most of the trees could be retained if the state government were prepared to agree to a four lane road within a four lane reservation.

The council reaffirmed its position in a November 2013 resolution moved by Wainwright, declaring that it only supported a four-lane road and requiring that pedestrian and bicycle connectivity be retained at multiple locations. Wainwright's membership of the Socialist Alliance drew an attack in parliament from the gaffe prone former treasurer and transport minister Troy Buswell, who condemned the council's "obstruction" and dismissed the resolution as being proposed by "Councillor Worthington" from the "Socialist Loony Party".

The road has its origins in the defeat of the plan for the Fremantle Eastern Bypass after an extended community campaign in the 1990s. In its place, Main Roads wishes to build the Roe 8 through the Beeliar wetlands (part of the original plan), a six-lane Stock Rd and High St and to widen Stirling Highway to six lanes through east and north Fremantle. This project would cost well over $2 billion.

The freeway building is justified on the basis of projected increases in container traffic, which Fremantle Port says will double by 2020 and triple by 2030 on 2010 numbers. In anticipation of this argument local residents and sustainable transport advocates formed the Fremantle Road to Rail campaign group in 2011.

It has consistently made the case that investing in rail freight infrastructure and shifting more freight to rail would be cheaper than freeway building. When the combined cost of diesel particulate pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, road accident trauma and noise pollution are included, it becomes even cheaper. Diesel particulate pollution was classified as a Class 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organisation in 2012, and Doctors for the Environment calculate that every dollar spent on reducing diesel emissions saves the community a staggering $30 in health costs.

As a mark of Road to Rail's success in shifting the public debate, the state government agreed to the target set by the former Labor government to get 30% of containers to the port by rail. However, it has no plans to actually achieve this and, in a letter to the group, Buswell described it as an "aspirational target". In fact his government has actually dropped a plan to upgrade the Kewdale rail facility that had secured federal co-funding.

The state government has also indefinitely deferred its promised MAX light rail and airport rail line election promises and cut its cycling budget, while pressing ahead with $1 billion of works to build freeways around the airport. The federal government cut its $500 million contribution to these projects after Tony Abbott's infamous comment in April last year, “We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important that we stick to our knitting, and the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.”

Wainwright told Green Left Weekly: "This rotten outcome is socially and ecologically destructive capitalism at its worst. Perth doesn't even have a proper bus service to the airport, let alone a train.

"Our state and federal governments are actively creating more traffic for its own sake. Freeway funding never has to justify itself or be subject to a true benefit cost ratio analysis.

"What is called transport planning in this country is mostly endless subsidies to the road transport, road construction and fossil fuel industries - at literally any cost to the public purse, environment, urban form and human health. Stopping endless freeway construction is not some NIMBY thing, it's about creating people-friendly cities."

The state already owns the land it wants for the High St project, but it takes the form of public reserves vested in council under a management order. If the council doesn't relinquish the land voluntarily the state government will need to scrap the management order through an Act of parliament. More important than the administrative delay, the state is desperate to gain council support to claim "social licence" and community support.

In return for voluntarily relinquishing the land, Main Roads has promised to make additional funds available to compensate organisations that use portions of the reserve and will have to be moved to accommodate the freeway, including two golf courses and the Fremantle Environment Resource Network (FERN).

An implicit threat from the state government is that if council does not agree, this funding may not be made available and that control of the entire reserve may be stripped from the council.

This threat led Mayor Brad Pettitt to advocate that council choose pragmatism over principles and agree.

Opponents of the freeway appealed to council not to give in to state government pressure. FERN convener Billy Amesz told council that while his organisation had the most to lose if the state government played hard ball, he did not want this to change his commitment to oppose the road.

Former councillor Kathy Anketell, a key organiser of the campaign against the Fremantle Eastern Bypass, wrote to councillors: "Council will lose all credibility with the community if you give in to their bullying tactics. If MRD still chooses to go ahead with this over-developed road at the expense of the community that is very different to Fremantle Council giving them the green light."

After lengthy debate council voted nine to four to reject the Main Roads proposal. White Gum Valley precinct convener Roy Lewisson thanked council for standing up to Main Roads, saying: "We understand and accept the risks of saying no to Main Roads. Your job is done, now it's our responsibility to build a community campaign."