JOHN AUSTEN. The NSW infrastructure mess keeps getting worse

Dec 5, 2017

This is an update on Sydney’s infrastructure puff piece saga. Previous articles in Pearls and Irritations pointed out that the NSW Government led by the Hon. Gladys Berejiklian MP does not understand infrastructure.  The draft 40-year plans for transport and for the Sydney region are a mess, involve kindergarten errors and contradict each other.  It now looks like the wheels are falling off.  The Commonwealth must step in if only for its own sake. 

While the public was to be ‘consulted’ on the State’s  new draft plans for just 6 weeks – until early December – this proved too long a period for the NSW Government to resist making  further decisions undermining their own stated intentions.  Three have surfaced so far.

A first is rejection of a private and only  proposal to link Port Botany and Kingsford Smith airport to Westconnex.  Some imply the reason is fear about public reaction to yet another toll – even if it does cement Sydney’s reputation as the global leader in private sector charges.

It is a short segue to a second  ill considered decision: a car registration rebate for those paying more than $1300 a year in tolls. Is this is another over-reaction to media reports about people becoming fatigued by tolls just like when former Premier Carr offered refunds for tolls paid on the M5 years ago.

This is a major setback for road pricing, or  proper road charging.  If the Commonwealth had appointed an eminent person to oversee national road reform, like it promised in August last year, the NSW policy reflex might have been slowed – or put to better use than shooting at its own foot via the rebate. Such an eminence might also have put a better case for a rebate.  Trucks are presently double-charged – they pay through the national heavy vehicle charging system – up to $13,000 – and also pay tolls.  If there is to be ‘toll-relief’ it should be for trucks; to get them off local streets.  Surely that looks better than trying to increase car use while ‘consulting’ on draft plans that aim to do the opposite?

The third decision involves a housing release of land ‘earmarked’ for a rail corridor vital to Badgerys Creek airport and Sydney’s west.  The corridor, identified by Infrastructure Australia as one to keep for rail, may well be the most important in Sydney.   The decision is further proof of conflict between transport and urban planning for Sydney.  There is speculation the decision might also be aimed at sidelining Commonwealth interests.

The decisions reek of insincerity about ‘consultation’ and suggest panic.

As if to highlight this, last week saw even more NSW infrastructure chaos. It started with the Hon. Phillip Ruddock, Immigration Minister during the Howard years, now mayor of Hornsby in Sydney’s north, blasting people from over  the Hawkesbury River  for parking in his shire.  One wag said it allows Mr Ruddock to paraphrase a famous dictum: he will decide who parks in Hornsby and the circumstances in which they park.

The press thinks the ‘drive to Hornsby, park and catch the train’ phenomenon is due to lack of parking spaces at Central Coast stations.  Perhaps true, but could abominably slow and crowded trains also be a factor?

With over $50bn for Metro, Westconnex et al.  who could blame NSW for having a bare cupboard when it comes to trains or car parks for the Central Coast or western Sydney?

Perhaps nobody could have blamed the State Government if it cried poor – until they heard news about its decision to demolish and rebuild two stadiums in Sydney at a cost of over $2bn.  ‘Reasons’ included age, shortage of ladies toilets and some sort of risk of ‘losing’ a grand final football game to another city.  The infrastructure club must be overjoyed – paradise delivering again!

The soon-to-be-closed Olympic Stadium is a grand old dame compared with rail’s ephemeral starlets. At 17 it is more than twice the age of the soon-to-be-closed Epping-Chatswood line.

The other difference is there is no report – yet – of school students being offered lessons about how to promote the stadium demolition/rebuild.  Unlike the report of help in writing advertisements/putting on plays to promote the North-West Metro.

There is more, too much to mention here.  Except the Government – as if channelling a previous Labor administration – re-unveiled a Parramatta-Sydney Metro.  Despite being ‘top priority’, its route and timing still remain unclear.

The publicity, as usual, omits mentions about on-board seating and has all sorts of ‘information’ about tunnelling – except for the only bits that matter: are the tunnels big enough to ever handle normal trains? Do they prevent other rail tunnels in Sydney city?  Worse, tucked away in the fine print is an ominous note; the much touted 30-Metro-trains-per-hour capacity is ‘under the CBD’ i.e. not everywhere?

The Metro re-announcement attracted new speculation. Was the motive to put another shot across the Commonwealth’s bows re rail in western Sydney?  Readers of Pearls  and Irritations might recall a joint Commonwealth-State ‘scoping study’ set up to look at relevant issues.  Its report is more than a year late.  For months both Governments have claimed to be finalising it; the public might see something eventually!

Meanwhile counter stories circulated; about the Commonwealth having a better grasp (than NSW) about the needs of western Sydney in general and Badgerys Creek ‘Aerotropolis’ (their word not mine) in particular.

Unfortunately, the Commonwealth Minister, the Hon. Paul Fletcher MP, conveyed the opposite to the local press.  The message heard was that  the only task is to get people from over his way – near the harbour – to the new airport.  Like NSW, he seemed to forget several million people already live in western Sydney – so annoying the locals. The words ‘Royal Commission’ appeared in print. A Royal Commission or judicial enquiry is need to sort out the NSW infrastructure mess

It is an increasingly ugly scene for Sydney’s west.

Infrastructure howlers are coming into public view.  ‘Discipline’ is faltering.  All while the public is supposedly being consulted on ’40-year plans’.

With such behaviour now, what  will it look like down the track when the pressure is on?  When important rail lines are closed for months to turn them into a Metro with few seats, that don’t get to the city and might cause chaos at big stations like Chatswood.  Just before an election.!

The saying was ‘a week is a long time in politics’.  A week is now also a long time in NSW infrastructure.

Sydney infrastructure policy, profitable  only to those on the great  construction gravy train, is almost beyond the point of no return.

It looks like a circus without a ringmaster.  The Commonwealth should know its repeated boasts of a yet-to-be-disclosed ‘city deal’ put it in the Grand Parade of performers.

However, it has no visible support.  Its once prominent adviser, Infrastructure Australia, went missing after hastily endorsing Metro-backing NSW in an extraordinarily flimsy report.  It has not even commented on NSW possibly ruining the pivotal corridor to Badgerys Creek it wanted protected.  Can it now claim to be a mere spectator?

From early last year, Luke Fraser and I  warned about the situation becoming an unprecedented mess

Does anyone think Prime Ministers like Keating or Howard would have tolerated what is being inflicted on Sydney?  Or that an Anderson or Albanese ministerial sized boot would not have been firmly – repeatedly – administered to bureaucratic and NSW political backsides long ago?

My advice to the present Prime Minister as he nears the circus big top: grab the whip of well-informed public opinion before the only role left is for clowns.

Minister Fletcher must step in now and stop the nonsense by ordering an independent inquiry to inform the public – if only to prevent attempts by NSW to further sideline his Government and set-up scapegoats.

John Austen was head of economic policy at Infrastructure Australia until 2014.  Prior to that he was in the NSW transport and rail bureaucracy for a considerable time. He is now a happily-retired Sydney western suburbs dweller. 



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