Change road to rail: alternatives to Westconnex

March 25, 2017

Students and academics at the University of New South Wales have mounted a major exhibition outlining a proposal for a radical redirection of the WestConnex tollway project from road to rail.

The exhibition, Civilise WestConnex, imagines what could be done if Stage 3 of WestConnex was cancelled and the other tunnels already under construction were converted from roads to train lines.

The $16.8 billion WestConnex motorway system, the largest infrastructure project underway in Australia, has already torn communities apart through property resumptions, demolitions, destruction of heritage homes, carving up of urban conservation areas, alienation of public parkland and destruction of trees.

Assessments by the Australian National Audit Office and other independent economists have found WestConnex’s funding process, its business case and the comparative advantage of rail over road projects in terms of congestion and green-house gas emissions all call the fundamental basis of the project into question.

Significant elements of the WestConnex project have been in construction since last year, with land clearing and tunnel boring along the M4 motorway from Haberfield to Silverwater and around St Peters in preparation for a new M5 tunnel.

Given the reality of work having already begun, the students and academics of the MUDD22 Sydney studio, investigated replacing cars and trucks in the WestConnex tunnels with high-capacity Metro rail and transforming sites slated for spaghetti road junctions with new neighbourhoods centred on transit stations.

The exhibition said: “Metro WestConnex is presented as a 21st century remaking of a failed 20th century paradigm — converging inner-city motorways. The MUDD22 Sydney studios propose instead, rapid rail transit and walkable urban precincts.”

The Civilise WestConnex plan may offer a solution to the argument often presented to anti-WestConnex campaigners, that “WestConnex is already a done deal. It’s too late to stop it.”

This argument is not correct, as significant sections of the WestConnex project have not yet commenced. The Stop WestConnex community campaign can still succeed in preventing much of the proposed road tollway plan being implemented.

Nevertheless, a major expansion of underground rail needs to be a significant part of any alternative plan to solve Sydney’s increasing transport crisis. It should be stressed, however, that any expanded underground rail network must be kept in public hands, and not privatised as the NSW Coalition government plans for new Metro lines under construction.

Meanwhile, Premier Gladys Berejiklian hinted at a major announcement about accelerating plans for an extension of WestConnex to the north shore of Sydney Harbour, via a “Western Harbour Tunnel” connecting Rozelle to the Warringah Freeway. Coincidently, the premier's announcement comes in the lead-up to the April 8 byelections in North Shore and Manly.

Labor opposition infrastructure spokesperson Michael Daley labelled the premier's comments “a byelection, pork-barrelling con-job”.

Labor has also launched a campaign against the imposition of tolls on current freeways. Tolls are due to be reintroduced on a widened section of the M4 — part of the first stage of WestConnex — in June.

The government is opposed to limiting increases in tolls on Sydney’s tollways to the rate of inflation. The annual “escalation rate” for WestConnex is proposed to be 4% or Consumer Price Index, whichever is greater.

Opposition to WestConnex among western Sydney commuters is likely to increase rapidly as people realise that they may be paying up to $200 a week to use the tollway to travel to work. Dissension at the toll rip-off is already mounting in the city's western suburbs.

In a further development, home-owners close to WestConnex sites are blaming noise and vibrations caused by the motorway's construction for cracks appearing in their houses.

One householder near the new M5 is facing a repair bill of $50,000 to damage she believes resulted from work on WestConnex just 30 metres from her front door. A property owner in Haberfield believes cracks along inner and outer walls were caused by construction of the M4 East.

Both homeowners are considering claiming compensation from WestConnex, as insurance policies do not cover damage caused by nearby construction work.

[A Grand Theft WestConnex rally, endorsed by a large number of anti-WestConnex resident groups, is set for March 30, at 4.30pm outside State Parliament. A Stop WestConnex gig to raise funds to cover the legal expenses of people arrested opposing WestConnex, is planned for April 11, at 6pm, at the New Theatre, King Street, Newtown.]

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