WestConnex – the general arguments against

The State Government has committed to a massive road proposal from Infrastructure NSW. It involves building 33 km of road, extending and widening both the M5 and the M4 and providing a link between them, via a long tunnel under the inner west of Sydney. So far, costs are expected to be $10-15 billion over at least a decade. A business case justifying the proposal was due in June, 2013. For such detail as there is and the Government’s positive take on the proposal (before the case is developed) go to http://engage.haveyoursay.nsw.gov.au/westconnex and take a look at the promotional video released by Infrastructure NSW at video-summary-of-westconnex. For a lighter moment, go on to this spoof of the video go to the WasteConnex video.

Why does WCPS oppose WestConnex?

The Society has two major sets of concerns about the Westconnex proposal

  1. The proposals for the M5East section will have very serious implications for Bexley North (more traffic) and Wolli Creek (moved, possibly concreted) and its bushland (hundreds of trees and associated plants and animals destroyed). See  details of the impact on the Wolli Creek Valley.
  2. But while the Society’s local energy may stem from this impact and our suggested alternatives concentrate on the southern (M5E) section of WestConnex that affect us, we are more broadly focused on the continuation of the huge investment imbalance between rail and road that has been evident in NSW since the Second World War. The Government paper acknowledges “the WestConnex scheme will be, by a large margin, the most expensive motorway development for Sydney to date.”  We support targeted investment in public transport alternatives that would have greater and more sustainable benefit to inner west, south-west and western Sydney residents at a fraction of the cost of WestConnex.

Will WestConnex solve traffic congestion?

Congestion and resulting economic inefficiency is the Govt’s key rationale for building the WestConnex project, but what if new roads won’t solve congestion and there are other, more cost-effective, ways of tackling that issue?

Consider two prospective scenarios:

  1. The old assumptions continue to hold true (demand for car travel is unresponsive to petrol price increases; there will still be an ample supply of petrol).
  • NSW has tried for decades to build its way out of road congestion. It hasn’t worked. While sat in a car in a moving parking lot in peak hour, the obvious answer may seem to be to create more road space to speed things up, but it isn’t.
  • WestConnex would no doubt initially improve travel times again, because it creates more road space. But that would in turn attract more drivers to the road – this is the well-known induced traffic effect – and build to congestion levels again over time. We all know this ourselves from a range of observable experiences: the initial M5E was congested within two years of opening; Los Angeles has little public transport and 20-lane highways that are congested.

On this scenario, congestion would be back in the medium term, but the money for public transport alternatives would have been spent.

  1. New knowledge corrects the old assumptions:
  • There will not be ample petrol in future. The passing of the peak in global oil production from all sources (known as peak oil) will limit fuel availability. This will push up petrol prices, making car travel more expensive and demand for public transport greater;
  • Inevitable carbon pricing and a prospective world economic recovery that worsens the excess of demand over supply for oil, will also push up petrol prices, as well as tunnel construction costs;
  • We now know that people do respond to increased petrol prices – public transport patronage is going up across Australia and a common travel measure (vehicle kilometres travelled per person) has been in decline for nine years, predating even the global financial crisis. For a more detailed look at the data view a video from EcoTransit Sydney: http://youtu.be/Xdvqt0ZsCvI

The NSW Government paper makes no mention of any of these points. We believe that under this scenario the medium-term outcome will be that traffic drops and WestConnex becomes a very expensive white elephant.

What would WestConnex mean for Sydney/NSW?

  • Given the above, WestConnex is likely to fall somewhere between ineffective and redundant.
  • At the same time it would leave us with a failing Sydney public transport system, because WestConnex’s costs would be absorbing almost all of the available funding.
  • It would also mean reduced funding for rural and regional roads.
  • There would probably be more sales of state assets to generate the funds to pay for it.
  • There may be even more cuts in social expenditure (on education, health, welfare etc).

What would WestConnex mean at a local level, around its route?

  • The high tolls needed to make the investment attractive to private investors (the Government’s model) would be unattractive to drivers. As a result:
    • There would be usual diversions and removal of direction signs to push more vehicles into the motorway and make alternatives less attractive ,so that occasional users are forced to pay the toll.
    • Many regular users who know the alternative routes would engage in rat-running to avoid tolls, congesting more local roads, not relieving them.
  • Major disruptions and possible local damage would occur during tunnelllng and construction.
  • Further tunnel ventilation stacks would be built, probably unfiltered, in residential areas or local bushland.
  • There would be Increased traffic noise outside of tunnels and increased pollution from extra traffic.
  • There would be little or no improvement in local public transport service levels.
  • Precious inner-city green spaces would be lost

So, what is the alternative?

In short, developing an extended and more efficient and attractive public transport system to draw off those drivers who do not need a car for a load or an irregular trip destination.

  • Congestion is a non-linear reaction to vehicle numbers and road space – it’s just the last 5% that moves traffic from free flow to car park crawl. Remember how much better it flows during school holidays, when a small percentage of cars are not using the roads, and the chaos when an accident blocks a lane. And it’s still mainly a peak hours problem.
  • Much of the traffic on motorways is made up of single–occupant cars on a regular fixed commute from home to work. Even now that travel times have become very slow, many drivers are still putting up with traffic congestion because there is insufficient provision for attractive public transport alternatives.

These commuters are easiest to provide alternatives for. For them we really need more public transport, that is more attractive to use.

That means:

  • increased system capacity (a key factor in this is the provision of a second rail harbour crossing which would increase Sydney’s rail capacity by up to 50%; for more on this issue visit the EcoTransit video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7zNHOAc5O),
  • greater frequencies,
  • faster journey times,
  • new routes (on this see the series “Griener’s Folly” parts 2 and 3  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dL62R9PK2w and  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNdgHBf_gJ0
  • better access to major destinations that draw many trips such as major employers and employment districts,
  • unified ticketing across modes.

The adoption of enough of these suggestions to draw off the excess of cars creating congestion would cost much, much, less and take much less time than the WestConnex mega-project. (See the impact on the Wolli Creek Valley for more detail of what this might involve to relieve the SW corridor.)

At the same time, incentives are needed get cars off the road. Incentives could be sticks or carrots, or a combination, and should include addressing the perverse incentives that actively encourage car use. Examples of perverse incentives  include:

  • Salary packaging of cars
  • Subsidised parking
  • Cashback schemes on toll roads, paid for by the taxpayer
  • Cost structures that make per trip car costs much lower than public transport fares but don’t reflect the real costs of those trips (eg car purchase, insurance, registration etc, don’t figure on a day-to-day basis)
  • Misleading price signals

What are the barriers to implementing the alternatives?

They include:

  • Our love affair with the motorcar, constantly promoted by advertising.
  • Entrenched belief in the old assumptions about car use.
  • Peak oil and climate change denial.
  • Vested interests in continued construction activity (tunnels, roads), in sales of cars and fuel, and in the redevelopment of prospectively valuable real estate at exit and entry points to motorways.
  • Standard over-estimation of cost of public transport projects by NSW Treasury and others and ‘gold-plating’ of construction to inflate the costs of public transport projects, eg, over-engineering, using unduly high standards, assuming cost over-runs. Treasury estimates are typically three times the cost based on completed public transport projects elsewhere in Australia and overseas. For more on this, visit the EcoTransit video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0kIYfx0fRI
  • Failing to adopt the technologies and practices of the most efficient public transport systems (from central Europe).
  • Ideological commitment to privatisation.
  • The absence of a holistic approach to moving people; eg NSW has separate departments and Ministers for Roads and for Transport.

How much time have we got?

  • Not a lot. Premier O’Farrell committed to starting a project before the next election. To be convincing that means getting started a year ahead, so maybe March 2014. Could well be the M5E (allegedly ‘shovel-ready’), or possibly the M4 – where there is the greatest opportunity to capture value from property re-development at the entrances and exits, now that the ‘slot’ road along Parramatta Road has been abandoned as even more expensive than a tunnel.
  • We should assume the early date, which means that we need to muster our forces as soon as possible.

What can be done?

  • At State level the WestConnex concept is supported by both the Coalition and ALP, who are responsive to pressure from vested interests in finance, construction, oil, vehicle manufacture, and from urban developers
  • The only countervailing force likely to work is people power – we have to show that there is massive public opposition to the WC project.
  • That means many, many people joining groups opposing the project and helping those groups to unite across the whole of Sydney – we will all be affected if so much infrastructure money goes into this one mega-object in inner Sydney.
  • For specific actions for the local Wolli Creek situation see the end sections of our local issues paper
  • For more general suggestions revisit this paper in a couple of weeks when we will add information about the alliance of people and groups forming across Sydney. The Wolli Creek Preservation Society has been active in the formation of this alliance. In the meantime hop on line and sign the petition at http://www.communityrun.org/p/westconnex

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