Need for speed … the proposed WestConnex will enable motorists to bypass 52 traffic lights between Parramatta and Sydney Airport.Barry O’Farrell stood in the Stranger’s Dining Room at NSW Parliament House on Thursday morning before a high-powered audience of the country’s infrastructure and business elite. The Premier was in a triumphant mood.
Less than 24 hours earlier, he had announced the NSW government would commit $1.8 billion to construction of a Sydney motorway, the WestConnex.
O’Farrell declared his government had ”shut the door on past report cards on NSW’s infrastructure as average to poor”.
”Not since the Olympic Games has NSW been able to make the claim that we are building the next generation of transformative economic infrastructure,” he said.
It was a noticeably ambitious statement, given the troubled history of infrastructure in this state.
Beyond the funding announcement, made on Wednesday afternoon after a flashy presentation by the government’s chief infrastructure adviser, Infrastructure NSW, it is very early days in the life of a project that is conservatively estimated to take a decade to build and cost up to $13 billion.
As O’Farrell made clear, he and his cabinet have pegged a significant amount of their immediate political future on the success of a project about which there is scant detail.
And already there are questions being asked about the practicalities of the project, the wisdom of its construction and consequences for Sydney residents living alongside its route.
On Infrastructure NSW’s reckoning, the merits of WestConnex, the latest incarnation of plans to bypass choked Parramatta Road, are enormous.
For motorists, it will cut out as many as 52 traffic lights between Parramatta and Sydney Airport. It will slash up to 35 minutes from this trip, Infrastructure NSW says.
But the road’s benefits are not only for motorists. The WestConnex proposal makes much of its boost to the NSW and therefore national economy by improving access to Port Botany and Sydney Airport for freight container movements by road – still the primary choice of operators as it avoids double handling from road to rail – to western Sydney.
Annual container movements from Port Botany are expected to nearly quadruple by 2031, from 2 million to 7 million, according to the Sydney Ports Corporation. Infrastructure NSW has said this is the crucial driver of the motorway.
The plan is also being pitched as an opportunity for urban renewal in Sydney’s west. The vision outlined by Infrastructure NSW for WestConnex has thousands of medium density apartments springing up alongside Parramatta Road. It remains unclear how many buildings near the road would need to be demolished.
The process is to be managed by the state government’s new planning body, Urbangrowth NSW, headed by the former Liberal leader John Brogden.
”It is intended that public and private sector investments in WestConnex will support urban renewal objectives as part of the delivery of the motorway program,” Infrastructure NSW says. But the vision is being met with some apprehension by local authorities, who fear they may be left to deal with the unintended consequences of promoting increased car use and exploding population densities in their areas.
”This stuff should have been started 15 years ago,” said Keith Rhoades, the president of the Local Government Association of NSW.
”This is one of the frustrations that local government has had. Communities are built and then the infrastructure comes in after them.”
Cr Rhoades, an independent on Coffs Harbour City Council, said that councils touched by the new motorway will be demanding a high level of consultation with the state government.
In particular, he said, there are fears that the introduction of distance tolling on the WestConnex may increase traffic intensity as drivers seek to avoid the motorway.
”We would be very concerned that what you’re not doing is moving a congestion problem off a motorway and onto local road networks under control of local councils,” he said. ”We don’t want to just move the problem. We want to fix the problem.”
The state government should consider offering extra money to affected councils to improve traffic infrastructure, he said. Others, such as the Labor mayor of Leichhardt, Darcy Byrne, are concerned about the impact on services of vastly increased population densities.
”The inner west is in the midst of Australia’s biggest baby boom and will not sustain more residential development without a matching expansion of social services,” he said. ”Increased population density cannot occur without investment in schools, childcare and hospitals.”
As part of its broader, 20-year strategy for the state, Infrastructure NSW has also recommended that 90 per cent of an extra 250,000 students expected in NSW over the next 20 years be taught in existing schools, further increasing concerns.
The western Sydney director of the Sydney Business Chamber, David Borger, welcomed the motorway plan but also said there was a significant issue looming about parking capacity when extra cars arrive due to improved access.
There are 10,000 parking spaces in the Parramatta central business district and capacity is regarded as being at saturation point.
”The Sydney Business Chamber welcomes the WestConnex, which will bring Parramatta closer to the city,” said Borger, a former Labor mayor of Parramatta and state roads minister.
”But we still have the challenge of ‘where do people park when they come into the city?’ That will have to be resolved.”
But, at the other end of the motorway, there are also questions about just how effective it will be in clearing traffic around the port.
The state MP for Heffron, Ron Hoenig, has questioned the adequacy of the route, which links up with a widened M5 East but not directly to Port Botany or Sydney Airport.
Cr Hoenig, who served as the Botany mayor for more than 20 years, has slammed the proposal as ”a $10 billion lemon that does not address the Port Botany and Sydney Airport gridlock”.
Even if WestConnex does not actually travel all the way to the port, the Infrastructure NSW plan does talk about traffic flow around Port Botany and the airport.
Among $330 million worth of proposals for the area, are plans to convert Bourke Road and O’Riordan Street to one-way streets; building an underpass under General Holmes Drive; cutting the cost of train fares to the airport; widening Mill Pond Road just to the eastern side of the airport; and more bus services to the airport.
There are other questions.
Sydney residents, by and large, are driving less. Is there a need for all these new roads? The report largely eschews major investments in public transport, but could better train and bus services displace some of the need for motorways? And don’t motorways just increase congestion by ”inducing” more people into their cars?
The Infrastructure NSW report acknowledges these issues and rejects them. It recognises that in major cities such as Sydney, people ”may now be” driving less.
In fact, according to figures from the national Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, for the past seven years the average Sydney resident has been driving fewer kilometres.
But this is not an argument against building new motorways, the report says, because demand for freight goods will continue to grow fast and the population will grow as more people move into the city.
As for public transport, Infrastructure NSW argues that buses, trams and trains will never be able to meet the needs of the majority of Sydney residents.
Sydney is a sprawl. Many residents work in the city’s CBD or in Parramatta, places well served by public transport, but about 60 per cent of jobs are spread out across the metropolitan area.
”Public transport cannot viably serve most of these jobs,” the report says. ”The overwhelming majority of Sydney’s journey are dispersed in nature … For such trips, the flexibility of the private car makes it the dominant choice. This pattern is the consequence of established land use patterns in Sydney and there is no indication in the available data that the patterns of demand will change in the future.”
Thus, the report rejects any major funding boost for public transport. A second harbour rail crossing, identified for at least a decade by transport experts as necessary, should not be built any time in the next 20 years.
On induced traffic, the report acknowledges that all the motorways built in recent years in Sydney have not improved the travel times for motorists in peak hour.
But it rejects the idea that this means motorway construction promotes congestion. Instead, it argues adding to the motorway network is needed just to maintain the status quo.
”A reduction in journey times in peak periods is desirable but the first task is to maintain existing performance standards and reliability levels as traffic grows,” it says.
All the recent motorways – the M5 East, the M2, the Eastern Distributor, the M7, the Lane Cove Tunnel – were needed just to prevent things from getting worse.
”The new roads built in the last two decades were the minimum required to maintain quality of network service and meet growth requirements,” the report says.
On this reasoning – that there is no alternative – Sydney can expect more motorways in the next 20 years and plenty more beyond that.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.