Responding to pressure from media, the community and the federal ALP, NSW Labor Premier Kristina Keneally dropped the state's unpopular "Metro to nowhere" (planned to run from Barangaroo to Rozelle) on February 21.
She also released a new 10-year Metropolitan Transport Plan (MTP) for Sydney, which pledged to spend $50 billion.
The MTP will do little to provide the massive boost in public transport infrastructure that Sydney desperately needs. However, if implemented in a timely fashion, it may bring some temporary relief — particularly to those in the far west of the city and the inner-western suburbs.
Whether the MTP is intended to boost Labor's flagging fortunes in an almost-certainly lost state election (scheduled for March 2011), or whether it is more aimed at buttressing outer-suburban seats for federal Labor, is a matter of opinion.
Kevin Eadie, convenor of Action for Public Transport (NSW) told Green Left Weekly that the MTP had serious flaws. "The completion dates for the projects are too far into the future", he said. "There is nothing in the plan for the northern beaches, nor for the highly trafficked eastern suburbs.
"The plan promises too much radial road building. At three times the public transport budget, this is very 1960s thinking.
"There is no detail, and the plan is couched in very vague language.
"The CBD relief does not go far enough, and the plan provides insufficient access from the western suburbs to the global employment arc, extending from North Sydney to Macquarie Park."
Of the $50 billion in spending pledged over 10 years, — almost half ($21.9 billion) is to build bigger roads. The report identifies works to the M2 tollway, the M5, and the Pacific Highway as targets for government funding.
However, the report ominously states that other road projects that could be brought forward "if additional funding becomes available" include the M5 tunnel duplication, an extension to the M4 and the F3 to M2 link.
Urgently necessary public transport improvements including the Epping to Parramatta rail link are relegated to the distant future by the plan.
The centrepiece of Keneally's plan is a promise to re-commit to the north-west rail extension between Epping and Rouse Hill. Construction, however, will not begin until 2017 and is not scheduled for completion until 2024.
The government has only committed $700 million over 10 years for both the north-west rail link and the duplication of the Chatswood to St Leonards line, according to the February 25 Sydney Morning Herald. So much for a "fully funded" plan.
In an obvious bribe to western Sydney commuters — seats that both federal and state Labor are desperate to shore up against losses elsewhere — the MTP promises the construction of a western express line from Springwood (via Blacktown and Parramatta) to the city.
The dedicated track will take western line trains to the city, and a new tunnel to lead from Eveleigh to Wynyard will relieve congestion on the existing city-circle service.
For those commuters in the north, south-west and south of the city, the plan claims that the western express line "will free up capacity to increase services … including [from] Liverpool, Campbelltown, Rhodes, Sydney Airport, Green Square, Fairfield, Leppington and Sutherland".
If the government were serious about relieving congestion in the city, however, it would extend the new line as a new harbour crossing (as suggested by the Christie report, released by the SMH on February 13), rather than ending at Wynyard station.
The new western express line is projected to lead to such small time savings for commuters (13 minutes for a trip from Springwood to Wynyard; less from elsewhere), that it's unlikely that it would encourage large numbers to switch to rail.
The MTP presents no serious plan to reduce the number of private vehicle trips taken in Sydney.
Over the next 10 years, the report projects that private vehicle trips will increase by more than 1.7 million each day — to more than 16.7 million by 2020. At the same time, train trips are projected to increase by only 222,000, to just more than 1.2 million, and bus trips by only 126,000, to almost 1.3 million a day.
The most immediate action offered by the MTP is the extension the existing (privately owned and run) light rail line from Lilyfield to Dulwich Hill in the inner west, and from Haymarket to Circular Quay (via Barangaroo) in the city.
No timetable is provided for the $500 million upgrade, with work expected to begin before the next election.
The gift of $500 million of public money to private French transport company Veolia — which runs the light rail on a for-profit basis — is unjustifiable. The whole project should be brought under state direction, and incorporated directly into the state-owned public transport system.
The extension of the light rail to Circular Quay via Barangaroo is also curious. The most serious congestion is in the centre of the city. Light rail replacing buses in George Street would do much more to alleviate this.
The $3 billion pledged by the government for new rail capacity and $2.9 billion for 1000 new buses and bus-only roads must be welcomed.
However, these measures fall well short of what is required to expand the public transport system to the degree that will be needed to both serve the expected growth of Sydney, and to see the dramatic shift needed from private to public transport over the next 10 years.