JOHN AUSTEN: What will it take to kick off a serious enquiry into the Sydney transport mess?

Dec 22, 2017

While readers relax over the Christmas break, Commonwealth advisers and politicians should be asking about the Sydney infrastructure mess.  

In Pearls and Irritations both John Menadue and myself have made repeated calls for an independent public enquiry into Sydney transport focusing on the State Government’s peculiar Metro e.g.

Reasons why we need an inquiry include:

  • Grave doubts; not only of a gargantuan ($30bn or more) waste of money but of sending Sydney backwards and creating permanent social and economic divides;
  • Absence of critical information such as whether Metro will forever preclude expansion of Sydney’s commuter railway;
  • Lack of plausible explanation for Metro and a grossly inadequate business case.

The Sydney Morning Herald now reports pre-eminent rail experts and practitioners in Sydney sharing such concerns. When the people mentioned speak up- Mr Ron Christie AO, Mr John Brew, Mr Bob O’Loughlin and Dr Dick Day – everybody in transport knows to shut up and listen. That is, apparently everybody other than the current State Government.

The Herald’s latest revelation referred to Mr Christie’s landmark 2001 report into Sydney trains. However, it overlooked the 2010 public inquiry chaired by Mr Christie – sponsored and extensively reported by the Herald – which warned against the things the State Government is now doing in transport.

Last week Luke Fraser in this blog queried whether Sydney is in the grip of an infrastructure cargo cult – without even needing to mention the demolition of modern stadiums in order to rebuild them at a cost of around $2.5bn

The State Opposition calls the Metro rail projects ‘stadiums on steroids’.

It would be more accurate to say the recent stadiums decisions entail echoes of Metro. At less than 10% of Metro cost and without permanent metropolitan wide ill-effects, they are quite faint echoes even if a petition against the stadiums reputedly had 1000 times the signatures of the petition in favour.

An enquiry into Sydney Metro/infrastructure may have its hands full. Apart from rail there are: misplaced light rail projects; interminable arguments about connections to Badgery’s Creek airport; metropolitan land-use plans contradicting transport plans and decisions that undermine public consultation. Then there are the tens of billions of dollars for road projects like Westconnex.

The State Government presumably doesn’t want an inquiry. Why doesn’t the Commonwealth show some guts and kick one off, with its supposed great interest in urban affairs and much-hyped if undisclosed ‘city deal’?

If the Commonwealth Government thinks cities policy is a game to hand out money, showboat and avoid responsibility – even the smallest conceivable responsibility of trying to ensure the public is informed – it should read the recent pieces by Dr Michael Keating AC and absorb the need for ‘cultural’ change and use of facts.

Over Christmas, Commonwealth advisers and politicians should reflect on the shame of their inaction on the Sydney fiasco – the most important urban issue facing Australia in living memory.

John Austen was head of economic policy at Infrastructure Australia until 2014.  He is now a happily-retired Sydney western suburbs dweller. Background can be found at his website

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