The New South Wales Premier promised during the 2019 election campaign that there would be no more privatisations. But a year later, Gladys Berejiklian has declared she is privatising the remaining 49% of WestConnex — 33 kilometres of road tunnel tollway the government is building for an estimated $26.5 billion.
When COVID-19 hit (smashing tollway traffic), the privatisation was deferred, pending a “scoping study”. Now it is going ahead.
Tollway giant Transurban paid $9.26 billion in September 2018 for a 51% share of WestConnex, and is the likely buyer of the remaining 49%. Transurban is also one of the Liberal Party’s major donors, according to investigative journalist Wendy Bacon.
Christopher Standen, a transport analyst at the University of Sydney, has slammed the WestConnex privatisation as “the biggest waste of public funds for corporate gain in Australian history”. A new report by the Grattan Institute shows how WestConnex and other mega projects built by governments and then privatised are notorious for cost blow-outs that benefit private corporations.
Standen estimated that the public would end up subsidising 66% of the cost of WestConnex after privatisation.
Privatising the remainder of WestConnex during the COVID-19 pandemic (when toll traffic is down) will lower the price, or involve other public subsidies through “tollway holidays” to sucker in users. This increases the public subsidy to the private corporate operator.
This privatisation will also impact on the slim rights that residents who live in the path of WestConnex tunnels have for compensation for any damage to their homes, falls in home value and other loss of amenity.
A fully-privatised WestConnex would be open to even less scrutiny and accountability than it is today.
EcoTransit, a community group campaigning for public transport, pointed out that the privatisation of more tolls roads will make it even more difficult and expensive to reform tolls to reduce unfairness, and get toll-avoiding traffic off local streets.
The incentive for any private owner is for even more roads to be built to feed more traffic into WestConnex. Yet the climate emergency demands a reduction in the use of private motor vehicles.
Greens MP for Newtown Jenny Leong told Green Left that the latest government sell-off comes as the need for government support for the most vulnerable, especially “public investment in community building”, is growing.
“The Greens opposed WestConnex from the start: we called for major funding for world class public transport and worked to build and support the strong community campaign to put the needs of people in the inner city and Western Sydney ahead of corporate interests.”
She criticised the billions in public funds being spent on a toll road, now being privatised. “It’s clear that this was never about solving Sydney’s congestion problems or helping people get where they need to go.”
Greens MP for Balmain Jamie Parker, whose electorate is also in the path of WestConnex, told Green Left: “The government has guaranteed billions of dollars of toll revenue and locked in annual toll increases above CPI for decades to come. Transurban now has a green light to fleece the people of Western Sydney and lock our city into a car dependent future.”
He said Sydney urgently needs “transformational public transport”, but that the government had directed Transport for NSW to “not even benchmark new tollway projects against the public transport alternatives we know actually work”.