In a recent public discussion, campaigners against WestConnex — the huge motorway and tunnel project in Sydney — were challenged to sum up their case against WestConnex in three sentences. “Start with what the proponents of WestConnex say will be the benefit of the project then say what is wrong with it.”
There were half a dozen seasoned anti-WestConnex activists in the room and each came back with much more than three sentences.
The questioner responded: “You are not going to move people like they did in Melbourne with such long answers.” We had just watched Ivan Hexter's Tunnel Vision, a documentary about how people power killed Melbourne's East West Link, a similar multi-billion dollar road tunnel project.
Have the opponents of WestConnex become too complex and long-winded with our arguments? Is our message being scrambled because affected communities have found so many good reasons to oppose this project?
We could sum up our opposition briefly in two sentences: WestConnex will set back, not improve, Sydney's transport system. It will increase pollution (including greenhouse emissions, carcinogens and fine particulate matter considered a serious health hazard by the World Health Organization), destroy homes and parklands, create more traffic chaos in surrounding communities and transfer billions of dollars of public funds to corporate profits for decades.
But what about a third sentence stating and rebutting the case put forward by the proponents of WestConnex?
In official documents, the purpose of WestConnex is “to link Sydney’s west and south-west with the Sydney Airport and Port Botany precincts”. However, as opponents pointed out in a May 22 meeting with community activists, it does not do that.
Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore said at the meeting: “What is clear is that the current design doesn’t serve its original purpose and now proposes to deliver trucks to St Peters interchange, seven kilometres from Port Botany — as well as 61,000 vehicles through city residential neighbourhoods to the CBD the nation’s most critical global centre. It will also cause major gridlock on the Anzac and Harbour Bridges.
“The whole premise of the government’s current argument, that WestConnex will reduce congestion for people in Western Sydney, is a lie. Their own business case shows that it will only save most users a miserable five minutes, and that catching public transport will remain a faster way to get to Sydney’s CBD.”
The NSW Coalition government is desperately trying to sell WestConnex on the basis that it will cut road travel times from the Sydney's west and southwest by half. Its transparent ploy is to divide and rule: telling residents in the city's west that “selfish” inner-city folk are trying to deny them shorter road trips.
But the imminent imposition of hefty new tolls on the M4 motorway that links the west with the city, is further souring public opinion. The new M4 tolls will go up 4% every year (double the inflation rate) and be imposed for 43 years even though the cost of the new work done on that motorway will be recouped in three years.
A petition signed by more than 10,000 western Sydney residents has recently been lodged with the NSW Parliament by Labor MPs. Labor politicians in Sydney are feeling the heat and slowly becoming more critical of WestConnex.
Federal Shadow Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Anthony Albanese has long been seen by anti-WestConnex campaigners as a supporter of the project. But on May 30 he made a speech in federal parliament that was highly critical of WestConnex.
The public outrage against the new tolls might be exposing something much bigger. As the self-described “anti-political satirical watchdog” Das Politix’s Facebook page noted in a post that crowned NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian “Queen of Tolls”: “Cast an eye over a map of Sydney and you’ll see an infestation of tolls sprouting up everywhere — with one notable exception. It seems that the climate in the northern regions of our city is not conducive to the troublesome weed.
“'Sydney needs to pay for infrastructure,' says the nice lady from the government. 'Yes, but you never asked me what infrastructure I wanted,' replies Sydney. …
“The M4 widening, needed or not, should be paid off in a few years. So why does the contract run until 2060? That’s because some of us, those with the wrong postcode, need to pay more than others.
“And with distance based tolling, the further you live the more you should pay. Seems fair, I guess. The further you go, the cheaper the house. The cheaper the house, the more spending money there is. So why not spend that abundance of spare cash on tolls — for the next 43 years.
“So next time you see the nice lady from the government ask her: 'Why should someone in Penrith have to pay for a tunnel at the end of the M4? And a tunnel at the end of the M5 and a tunnel at the…'”
This sums up the incoherence of the government's case for WestConnex. It is not about providing Sydney with radically better public transport that could be built for a fraction of the $17 billion official cost of WestConnex.
WestConnex was never about “future-proofing Sydney's transport”. It is a giant — and soon to be privatised — tollway scam that is designed to keep on giving billions from the public to a handful of the Liberal government's “corporate mates” for years to come, because WestConnex will be followed by more giant tollway scams.
It might turn out that a tsunami of public outrage at this mother of all tollway scams will prove its undoing.