When it is suddenly announced that an eight-lane toll road is about to be tunnelled underneath a neighbourhood, it is no surprise that the community springs into action.
This is exactly what has happened over the past month in my neighbourhood of Newtown, one of the oldest suburbs of Sydney.
Similar things have been happening in many other Sydney suburbs as the WestConnex monster — a $17 billion leviathan of tollway tunnels that is eating Sydney — spreads its tentacles.
Entire communities have been forced to defend themselves as best they can. Ordinary folk have taken political action, sometimes for the first time in their lives, and become committed activists. They return to the almost daily early-morning multiple protests, sometimes get arrested for non-violent civil disobedience, organise meetings, marches and protest occupations and keep on with the patient work that is community organising.
The first clue that an eight-lane tollway might be routed under our homes was when WestConnex test drill sites started popping up.
Then the November 10 Sydney Morning Herald revealed that Mike Baird’s NSW Coalition government was about to unveil a new tunnel route from Haberfield to St Peters to link the extensions to the M4 and M5 tollways. Instead of being three lanes in each direction, the M4-M5 would become four lanes each way and its completion date was brought forward to 2022.
The previous route for the M4-M5 under Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Sydney University had been abandoned because of concerns the tunnel could affect sensitive equipment. These objections are reasonable but for those who live along the new route, they do not inspire confidence in WestConnex's assurances the tunnel will have no effect on homes.
Much of the affected part of Newtown is a heritage conservation area. The suburb was created in 1854 and contains mid-19th century workers' cottages, a few larger Victorian homes and other heritage-listed buildings, including St Stephen’s Church (and the remnant of a historic cemetery that surrounds it), the former Newtown Baptist Church, St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church and Boys’ and Girls’ schools, the Court House/Police Station in Australia Street, the Courthouse Hotel and one of the first suburban corner shops in Sydney.
The WestConnex monster has already smashed its way through heritage homes in Haberfield, despite a formal objection from the National Trust.
When Newtown residents started protesting at the WestConnex test drill sites near their homes last month, some may have tried to dismiss this as a typical NIMBY (not in my backyard) response. However, as I spoke to concerned residents I discovered most residents’ objections were far from NIMBY. They did not want WestConnex in anyone’s backyard.
Of course they were concerned about their homes. Century-old workers’ cottages are a struggle to maintain even without a major tunnel being carved out underneath. Workers’ cottages have weak foundations and are built on clay, which tends to expand and contract. Global warming has only increased these challenges.
Tunnelling experts say that, even with the latest technology, there is always a risk of subsidence, sometimes quite some time after the tunnelling. Obviously, the powerful voices of RPAH and Sydney University administrations were well aware of the risks the tunnel posed.
Residents are also concerned about pollution from the tollway, especially from fine particulate pollution from truck and car exhausts. WestConnex claims that there will, probably, be no mid-point exhaust stacks in the M4-M5 Link tunnel but this means there will be even more pollution at the Rozelle and St Peters’ exits. To cut costs, any exhaust stacks built by WestConnex will have no filters. Prevailing winds will spread this pollution across Sydney’s inner west.
Most residents are clear that WestConnex is a transport disaster for all of Sydney. For a fraction of the cost of WestConnex, rail, light rail and bus public transport capacity could be doubled and its frequency increased. Such investment in public transport is overdue but that is not where the money is going.
WestConnex will only shift around traffic jams and users of the new privatised roads and tunnels may have to pay tolls of up to $25 for a round trip.
Eventually, it may well be the public realisation that WestConnex is yet another giant scam to benefit the corporate mates of the NSW Coalition that will mobilise the mass protest needed to bring it to a grinding halt, as happened with Melbourne's East West Link last year.
With the Baird’s leadership already badly shaken on other fronts, the window to strike such a killer blow may not be far off.
[A Newtown community meeting about WestCONnex is being organised for Tuesday December 6 at 6.30pm at Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, 1 Bedford Street, Newtown.]