Sydney is in the grip of "tollway madness" and urgently needs a planning overhaul if it is to become a healthier city, the recent FitNSW forum for planning and health experts was told.
The NSW Coalition government's "incomprehensible" spending on building roads came under fire from City of Sydney councillor Philip Thalis at the forum. He said: "We're actually seeing a return to 1960s motorways, which is absolutely crazy; no other city globally is [being so foolish] ... it's incomprehensible.
"We need to re-orientate the entire framework on post-war planning [towards the public interest]; we've been incredibly biased towards the car. This is motorway madness; this mania ... is the biggest threat the city has had."
Instead of spending big on roads, which encourages urban sprawl, Thalis said the government should be investing in public transport and infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians, which would improve the health of its citizens.
Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University in WA, said projects such as WestConnex are "a big step backwards" for Sydney.
"We're pumping billions and billions into really wasteful roads that do not fix the problems we're facing," he said. "It's such a loss of opportunity, for that money could have gone into other, better forms of transport."
The government is coming under increasing pressure, with a recent opinion poll putting the Coalition government and Labor state opposition neck and neck on 50% each, two party preferred, with an election due next March. The government's unpopular plan to spend $2.5 billion on rebuilding two 20-year-old stadiums is merely adding to its woes around transport, health, education and other issues.
The government is planning to sell a 51% stake in Sydney Motor Corporation (SMC), the entity it set up to build WestConnex and collect toll revenue, but corporate bidders for the SMC, such as Transurban and IFM Investors, have been left hanging while the government tries to explain this massive privatisation rip-off to the NSW public.
In what would be the biggest single sell-off of public infrastructure in NSW history, confidential sale documents given to bidders say WestConnex is expected to earn $209 million in revenue and $126 million in profit before tax, interest, depreciation and amortisation in the 2018–19 financial year. This is expected to increase to $231 million and $155 million in 2019–20 and $390 million and $222 million in 2020–21.
The government has now released its response to the NSW Legislative Council inquiry into road tolls held last year, effectively rejecting the inquiry's conclusion that motorists could not afford the proposed tolls.
But, as Ben Aveling wrote on the People's M4 website: "Motorists are being forced to pay $4.74 to save a couple of minutes, compared to the old freeway. You have to be making a fair amount before that becomes a fair price, and it's only going to get more expensive.
"The price is going to go up by 4% a year, more than twice as fast as salaries are rising. Even at the current price, the M4 expansion will have been paid off after two or three years of tolls. But M4 motorists will be paying 40 years of tolls. Many motorists are already unable to pay the current toll.
"Putting the toll on the M4 has reduced the number of vehicles using the M4 and increased the number using other roads. All that has been done is to make one road a bit faster, at the cost of making other roads slower.”
However, as the anti-tollway WestConnex Action Group (WAG) explained: "The sale of SMC is not a done deal, because of the huge financial risk attached to the engineering and traffic numbers with its negative effect on the sale price. Current media speculation is that the SMC might be valued at between $3 and 5 billion in total, or 15–25% of the alleged cost of about $20 billion or more.
"In other words, taxpayers shell out the bulk of $20 billion to give a private corporation the right to charge exorbitant tolls for 40 years! WestConnex is a rort, plain and simple."
WAG has combined with other anti-WestConnex groups to launch a public advertising campaign using banners suspended from bridges across the M4, M5 and Parramatta Road. To support the campaign, send an email.