WestConnex is a $17 billion, 33 kilometre toll road proposed by the New South Wales government and backed by the federal government. Its tunnels, multi-layered interchanges and four to six lane highways will cut a swathe through the inner west of Sydney.
Pauline Lockie is a spokesperson for the WestConnex Action Group, one of the groups opposing the project. This is an edited version of a speech she gave at the Rally for Fair Fares in Sydney on June 21.
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The 2016–17 NSW budget has just been handed down, and we now know that [Premier] Mike Baird plans to throw nearly $3 billion more of our money at WestConnex. That is on top of the $1.8 billion of NSW money he has already chucked into it; the $3.5 billion of our money at the federal level that was committed by [then-Prime Minister] Tony Abbott before any business case had even been written, let alone released; and the $1.5 billion loan that needs to be repaid.
Yet it feels like barely a week goes past now when there is not some damning new revelation into why this toll road will be a disaster for Sydney.
WestConnex will destroy endangered species, parks, thousands of old-growth trees, and hundreds of homes and businesses. It will see tens of thousands of men, women and children exposed to increased pollution from unfiltered stacks, feeder roads and tunnels, and see families in western Sydney — where much of my own family lives — paying huge tolls to drive straight into traffic jams.
All this, when even the government's own figures show WestConnex will make traffic worse, not better, on many of the roads it is supposed to fix; and that far from saving the 40 minutes we've been promised in WestConnex's propaganda, most drivers who pay the $11 each-way toll will save just five minutes or less.
So it does not take a genius to see that it would be much smarter for us to spend even a fraction of WestConnex's monumental $17 billion budget on public transport instead.
For around $3 billion, for example, we could upgrade the outdated signalling system used on the Sydney Trains network and increase its capacity by around 40% — without laying a single metre of extra track. No homes would be destroyed; no one would lose their small business; and no parks, trees or bushland would have to be mown down to do that.
And just imagine what expanding our train network to almost one and a half times what it is today would do for Sydney. The impact would be transformative, particularly for commuters from areas along the WestConnex route who have to catch trains that are full to bursting right now, let alone in 10 or 20 years.
Improving public transport would also do far more to ease congestion on roads like the M4 and Parramatta Road than building yet another failed tollway ever would.
But easing congestion is only part of what a truly world-class public transport system would do for Sydney. For a start, we can't be serious about social justice, equality and mobility unless we provide such a system.
Some of us make the choice to use public transport, but there are many more people who cannot drive because they cannot afford a car, are not able to drive for age or medical reasons, or would simply prefer not to.
Without decent public transport, how can we ensure everyone in Sydney has access to jobs, education, sport, arts and culture, and all the opportunities living in a world-class city should offer?
A city with great public transport is also far more sustainable than one that depends on cars. If the wild storms of the last few weeks have taught us anything, it is that we should be doing everything we can to reduce climate change and emissions, not increasing them by building polluting duds like WestConnex.
Speaking of pollution, we know, without a doubt, that vehicle air pollution will kill you. It is so bad that the World Health Organization has listed not just outdoor air pollution, but also the particulate matter that you find in air pollution, as group 1 carcinogens — the same deadly category as asbestos.
That means that unless you get a kick out of getting various cancers, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases or even stopping your kids' lungs from growing properly, you do not want to live near a congested road; you do not want to spend time in congested road tunnels; you do not want to be within range of an unfiltered pollution stack. WestConnex will bring all three of these to much of western, inner and south-west Sydney.
The $17 billion we're wasting on WestConnex could fund new public transport, such as new light rail networks; heavy rail upgrades; new train stations; park and ride areas; better cycling and walking facilities, and much more. But we could do all of that for less than it would cost to build WestConnex. We would create a better city for everyone and we would have money left over for our schools, hospitals and investing in our regions as well.
So let's stop WestConnex. Let's build a truly world-class transport system instead. And let's make Sydney more accessible for everyone.