WestConnex: 'Bigger bottle, same neck'

January 29, 2016
A protest against WestConnex in Newtown in February last year.

In a move designed to restrict examination and comment, the NSW government released the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the New M5 in late November. The EIS was on public exhibition until January 29 — virtually the whole summer holiday period.

The New M5 is the second major tunnel section of WestConnex and will run between the existing M5 East at Kingsgrove and the new interchange at St Peters.

This EIS has been the main focus of the Stop WestConnex campaign over December and January. The community was given only 65 days to review and comment on the back-breaking 8000-page technical document.

You could question why someone would even bother to participate in such a flawed process, with a government so determined to rush through to awarding contracts to their road warrior corporate masters. Indeed, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore suggested that, in reality, even the most carefully prepared Sydney City Council submissions are ignored by the government.

However, while acknowledging the inherent flaws in the process, campaigners can use the EIS documents to reveal flaws in the project and draw people into the campaign. This has the potential to allow people to become informed, empowered, organised and develop a wider critical perspective.

Throughout this period health, transport and planning experts and councils have been preparing submissions. Community activists have set up street stalls — notably on King St, Newtown — and online submission web forms, such the People's M5 EIS at m5eis.org, to raise the number and improve the quality of submissions. Community meetings have also been held in Alexandria, Erskineville and Leichhardt.

A 1200-page Response to Submissions was completed late last year for the M4 East tunnel EIS. It received 4800 submissions, the vast majority being strong objections. But the planning department failed to follow the usual procedures of publishing individual submissions and addressing the issues raised. This has resulted in further complaints. Ashfield Council, for example, claims that none of its 20 key issues have been satisfactorily addressed.

This is not surprising, given that multinational engineering design company AECOM produced both the EIS and Response to Submissions report and has a deep commercial interest in the tollway. AECOM was forced to pay $280 million to settle a negligence case based on its wrong predictions for several tollroads in Brisbane. These points, raised in more than 4000 objections, were quickly dismissed.

Prior to approval and during the EIS process, the government continued to buy properties ready to be demolished for the tollway, with a number of homeowners in St Peters being given forced acquisition notices. Many of these home owners have lost several hundred thousand dollars due to a flawed valuation process. This process was the subject of a scathing internal review, produced two years ago but never released.

Meanwhile, the announcement of a further excision of 6000 square metres of Sydney Park in addition to the 8000 square metres previously expected to be lost — a total of 1.5 hectares of parkland — has proved extremely unpopular. This extra loss of parkland was not mentioned in the M5 EIS.

Activists have boosted awareness of the loss of desperately needed parkland in the inner city by a campaign to wrap blue ribbons around the hundreds of trees that will be destroyed.

Suspicions have been raised that this is not the end of losses to the award-winning park. As parts of the park are used as construction compounds for up to three years, nearby areas would become degraded and it would be easier to justify taking those areas too. A further swath of the park could be taken to smooth traffic flow around the perimeter, which is set to see 70,000 cars a day swirling into local congested roads.

Locals downstream are starting to wake up to these impacts. Euston Road, Alexandria, will be widened for a stretch, right up to the edge of several apartment blocks, to accommodate a 10-fold increase in daily traffic. The inability of local roads to handle this increase is obvious to anyone familiar with the area.

This includes conservative talkback radio host Chris Smith, a resident of Alexandria. He appeared to suffer a severe bout of cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile his lived reality with his choice of career while interviewing local resident activist Ben Aveling.

Aveling likes to use a simple analogy that Smith would well understand. Duplicating the M5 motorway and sending the resulting traffic into congested local streets will not lead to an improvement in flow: it is just a “bigger bottle, same neck”, he stated.

The idea that a shift of emphasis from private cars to public and active transport might help to solve the problem never seems to occur to the road warriors. We should not wonder why.

[Andrew Chuter is an activist with Stop WestConnex and a member of the Socialist Alliance. He would like to acknowledge the research of Wendy Bacon which he drew on.]

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