WestConnex sale: Wrong way, go back

Denise Corrigan, David Watson and Mark Titmarsh PISS OFF WESTCONNEX, 2019, Acrylic paint on Marine Ply, 2 x 22m.

Despite promises to the contrary, the New South Wales Coalition government looks set to privatise the remaining 49% of the WestConnex motorway. The other 51% was sold for $9 billion to a Transurban-led consortium in September 2018.

With the costs from a suite of large infrastructure projects blowing out ($4 billion on Metro, $1.5 billion on light rail) and the economic damage from the bushfire disaster and COVID-19 making the situation worse, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet announced a scoping study into a possible sale on March 6.

We should not be surprised. From the very beginning, WestConnex was designed as a gift to the private sector. The transport problems it was designed to solve were never made clear, while community objections and public transport options were swept aside.

In 2015, WestConnex became the Sydney Motorway Corporation, a structure that suited eventual private ownership and allowed the project to be shrouded in secrecy. “Commercial in confidence” reasons were always cited when members of the public asked for information.

Perrottet describes the privatisation using the Orwellian term “asset recycling”. While “recycling” may conjure up an environmental aspiration, WestConnex is really about more roads — which means more drivers and more greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector. The profit motive of any private owner would be to increase car use, rather than reduce it as the climate crisis demands.

The political clout of large corporations that own road infrastructure is a corrupting influence on governments who succumb to their demand for more tollways.

The initial privatisation of WestConnex was highly contested. The sale was referred to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission over monopoly concerns, as Transurban already owns seven out of nine of Sydney's toll roads.

Although $9 billion for 51% of a project purported to cost $17 billion to build may seem like a good deal, a deeper analysis reveals otherwise.

Three other public assets — the already existing M4, M5 East and M5 Southwest — were bundled into the sale which Credit Suisse estimated to be worth more than $9 billion.

The project cost is estimated to have blown out to $23 billion, with property acquisitions, toll subsidies and supporting road infrastructure adding to the total.

University of Sydney transport analyst Dr Chris Standen claimed it translated to a financial return of 34 cents for every dollar spent. This stands in stark contrast to the 2015 Business Case, which claimed a benefit-cost ratio of $1.70 for every dollar spent.

Car-centric planning not only damages the environment and imposes huge costs on the public purse, it impoverishes the budgets of working people too.

Studies of household expenditure show a typical Sydney household spends around $15,000 a year on transport, with more than 90% of this spent on owning and operating vehicles.

This amounts to about $30 billion in the Sydney metropolitan area a year. Even a small shift to public transport, or active transport such as walking and cycling, could drastically reduce this cost.

Figures provided to Green Left by City of Sydney councillor Philip Thalis show that, since 1940, heavy rail transport infrastructure in the Sydney metropolitan area has barely increased, yet during the same period the population and urban area have tripled.

Sydney once had one of the largest tramway networks in the world but by 1961, the 291 kilometres of track was completely ripped up despite popular opposition.

Health costs are greatly overlooked too. Globally, 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year. Vehicle exhaust plays a major role in the 4.2 million who die prematurely due to air pollution. It is possible that lifestyle diseases associated with car dependence are just as serious.

The World Health Organization recognises that lack of physical activity is responsible for more than 3 million deaths a year globally and urban planning policies that encourage active transport are one of the most effective means of addressing the problem.

Any rational plan for urban transport that seeks to put people and the planet before profit would immediately reverse the privatisation and nature of the WestConnex tollway. Rather than sell the remaining stake, the NSW government should buy it back and find ways to re-purpose the tunnels for public transport, such as fully electric Bus Rapid Transit.

The tens of billions now being wasted every year on motorway madness can be put to far better use.

[Andrew Chuter is an activist in the No WestConnex campaign.]