JOHN AUSTEN. Trouble in infrastructure paradise NSW revisited.

May 9, 2018

The mixed reception for the infrastructure works of NSW Premier the Hon. Gladys Berejiklian MP continues. It is mostly bad news punctuated by the odd piece of what the NSW Government considers good news.

Previous articles commented on emerging  transport troubles in NSW – a state considered by the infrastructure club to be paradise. It is time for an update.

Before looking at the chickens coming home to roost, the NSW  Government claims there is good news with the North West Metro construction coming in $500m under budget – around 6% of the budget of $8.5billion. 

The Premier and Transport Minister made the claim during a media performance at one of the Metro construction sites. Both were  suitably attired with the familiar politician’s white helmet and a new de rigeur – safety glasses.

The Premier, with apparent enthusiasm, spouted that once people see what a driverless wonder Metro is ‘everyone will want one’. Perhaps, but  surely they would prefer to sit while travelling. Metro has far fewer seats than Sydney trains. 

Among the likely reasons for the Premier’s presented joy is the Metro budget which is the only thing that can be presented as a bright spot in an increasingly bleak story emerging about her Government’s unjustified spend-a-thon on infrastructure.

In March, the Government finally backed down – a little – on its policy of knocking down and rebuilding two modern stadiums, at a cost of $2.5bn. Now the intention is to knock down only the Sydney football stadium and refurbish the  Olympic Stadium. While presented as a ‘saving’ of $500m, the reality is it a waste of up to $2b. 

The most credible and  least fatuous – case for knocking down the Sydney football stadium is to create ‘the Twickenham of the south’. The Government’s pro-offered ‘safety’ reasons lost some force after a ‘record crowd’ of 41,142 people – 92% of rated capacity  were there to watch a league game on Anzac Day.

Sydney City light rail – the Premier’s ‘signature project’ when transport Minister – is in a world of trouble. Cost could be nearly double its original budget. The construction company is suing the Government for more than $1.0bn claiming it was misled about critical construction matters. Reports say the line will be finished at least a year late, a year later than the State election where it was to showcase ‘infrastructure credentials’. Meanwhile, some businesses on its route through the CBD whose revenues have been  damaged by construction disruptions.

Westconnex continues to attract negative reviews. The Government presses ahead, even granting planning approval before a design is finalised. This might be useful to give the appearance of action given claims of yet another budget blow-out – this time $700m – and delays of a year. The Government argues it is on time and budget and, contrary to almost universal experience, the road will ‘bust’ congestion.

Congestion-busting is taking on a new importance since the more perceptive in the media are now querying whether the Government’s own policies,like the restriction on the Port of Newcastle to deal with containers  is adding to traffic jams.

According to reports, the Transport Minister is becoming nervous about the State’s ability to finance another ‘congestion buster’ West Metro – claiming the Western Sydney ‘deal’ and stadium spending threaten to ‘bankrupt’ the State. This must worry the Government as all and sundry now see that the highest priority for rail capacity expansion has long been between Parramatta and the CBD, when the re-re-announced West Metro is to go – and not where the current Metro is being built.

Next  in the transport mess was confirmation that the Government was told that the new rail timetable was unduly risky, but nonetheless pressed ahead with predictable results of days of major delays and more recently a spike in skipped stops. This confirms the Government made a big mistake in its re-organisation of transport in NSW; where the Department, under the direction and control of the Minister has plenty of power but shies from responsibility.

To add to the mess a date has been set for the shut-down of the Epping Chatswood line, inaccurately reported as to be ‘upgraded’ – instead of altered – to Metro. Duration is expected to be at least 7 months – and not to  open before the election.

All this is grist to the mill of the press who are starting at last to take a more careful look at the Government,  presumably in the expectation that more problems are to  follow. 

The State Opposition is claiming the above matters prove the Government can’t deliver infrastructure. This misses the point.

Sydney may well be better off without this Governments infrastructure projects – even if they are  ‘free’. It may take enormous sums to bail the city out of the trouble the Government’s infrastructure mania is causing.

Perhaps he banking  royal commission is proving to be more valuable than many  expected. This provides a lesson for the Commonwealth in relation to Sydney transport. In both banking and infrastructure governments are proving unable or unwilling to properly regulate and supervise powerful and wealthy vested interests.

For many months we have called for a public inquiry to sort out the mess in NSW transport.That need is becoming more and more obvious.

 John Austen is a happily retired former official living in the Macarthur area of Western Sydney. He was Director of Economic Policy for Infrastructure Australia from its inception in 2008 until his retirement in 2014. 

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