LUKE FRASER. Is Sydney in thrall to an infrastructure cargo cult? Part 2 of 3

Dec 14, 2017

This is the second of three articles considering transport infrastructure spending levels, shortcomings in transport governance and strategy and the potential for doing better. 

The previous article argued that Sydney deserves special attention for its headlong rush to deliver major transport projects.  That article focussed on establishing the globally-remarkable nature of the sums in play – probably in the order of $AUD85 billion, which is in relative terms higher than the entire EU’s last five years of transport PPPs.  The first article suggested we should look beyond the cost-benefit claims of each of these major transport projects: there is a ‘deeper magic’ required for the successful planning of megacities.  This command is not in evidence in Sydney.

The magic part

Conjuring several multi-billion dollar transport projects in a big city presents great complexity: each new project can interact with its predecessors in uncertain ways.  Success relies on the public sector having a sound geospatial strategy and running a disciplined advisory function to protect community and investor alike from project-happy pollies and rentseekers. For a strategy to be sound, it must be simple and bipartisan – agreed before any projects are announced.  One page would be ideal.

No such strategy exists in Sydney.

Typically, megacity transport strategy works to two shorthand rules: ‘roads go around, railways go to’.

‘Roads go around

Roads are distributive infrastructure, useful for maximising user choice and accessibility to and from many places.  For these reasons, the big motorways should be orbital – going around the city in rings.  They certainly should not point themselves directly at the city, as they will disgorge all of these cars in the city centre and create a big jam.  New motorways with spare capacity will induce more cars, so the policy choice is, do you want more cars, or do you want to guide your metropolis to a different commuter mix?[i].

Of Sydney’s current major road projects, only Northconnex appears to act like a ring road.

By contrast, Sydney’s Westconnex was aimed squarely at the city. It began as a project that was to cost the government $2.5 billion, with a further $7.5 billion contributed by the market and clawed back in tolls[ii].

This vision necessitated another project to be dreamt up so as to cycle all those cars out of the city again (at Rozelle) to points north.   Four years later it has morphed into a perhaps $35 billion dollar project (once the road to the airport and to Port Botany and the under-harbour tunnel from Rozelle and the link to the Northern Beaches are thrown in).  Even newer plans suggest offshoots snaking south towards ‘the shire’.

It is not entirely clear whether the latest phases are designed to induce more toll-paying users onto the network, or simply to gentrify areas of Northern Sydney like Military Road.    Whatever the answer, it is far from an orthodox orbital motorway.

‘Railways go to

All over the world’s big cities, mass transit systems move far more people than cars can to major employment nodes.  These trains and buses cycle away, minimising congestion and the need for car parks.  This is also the point of the Melbourne Metro project. Melbourne’s recently announced North-East Link, however expensive, is also a completion of that city’s ring road and as such is not controversial.  Notwithstanding Peter Martin’s legitimate concerns about wasteful megaprojects, most of Melbourne’s projects appear broadly in alignment with strategic urban transport planning norms[iii].

In contrast, Sydney appears to have broken all the rules.

Whatever Sydney Metro’s claims to mass transit may be, they are surely blotted out by the incredible folly at that project’s heart – Metro appears to have been designed consciously to not integrate with Sydney’s existing Cityrail mass transit system – the carriages and tunnels it will use and its platforms are of a smaller size and different design to Cityrail, meaning Cityrail can’t expand onto this network; this might well hold even if Cityrail moved to single-decker trains in future, given the tighter dimensions and design of the Metro tunnels.

If correct, this will not only force some commuters to change systems mid-commute – potentially increasing road use where it is most problematic – it also threatens the operational capacity and future growth options of Cityrail itself.  John Austen, who spent a long career in senior New South Wales rail and Infrastructure Australia roles, has written persuasively in Pearls about this cardinal transport planning sin.   It was also warned against explicitly in an eminent 2010 Independent Inquiry into Sydney’s transport needs.

The phases of Metro appear conjured in haste.  Its Sydney harbour crossing extension appears driven as much as anything else by the humiliation that would face Metro sponsors when the original project – in Sydney’s suburbs – dumps passengers at Chatswood, 10 km north of the city – forcing them to then catch the maligned Cityrail trains to work.

Prudent transport policy architects should assume at least some challenges ahead for Sydney.  In the case of a city’s major motorway system encountering turbulence, responsible public policy is to redouble sensible development of the mass transit and public transport systems as a makeweight.  Sydney’s macro problem is this: if the new Metro is indeed physically incapable of full integration with the existing Cityrail network, this could drain operational capacity and future expansion choices on Sydney’s heavy rail system at precisely the time that the city most needs a superior public transport network.  This is surely a rare situation – a major world city with confused motorway and mass transit strategies coinciding.

Advisory deficit

An earlier post talked about the transport policy ‘advisory deficit’ that handicaps good transport planning for major cities.  Former head of Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran AC wrote last week that if Australian public policy were a patient, these days that patient would be in palliative care[iv].

Moran rightly points to the lack of trust that poor public policy breeds in the community, but I think the problem extends to our place in the market itself: too much irresponsible major project development will break faith with credible market investors.  We all have reason to fear a drop in foreign investment flows – they underpin our standard of living.

Is this already happening? In October, the New South Wales government abandoned the expression of interest process on the Westconnex Rozelle interchange.  This multi-billion dollar project only attracted a single expression of interest[v].  In announcing that a new expression of interest process would be pursued, the responsible Minister suggested lack of market interest in the process was ‘primarily due to general market conditions, given the significant amount of infrastructure that is being delivered in New South Wales at present’[vi].    The cargo cult is surely strong when the announcement list outstrips the design and construction capacity or appetite of the international market.  This is the context for reminding ourselves of Professor Henry Ergas’ view that there are very good reasons why governments, lenders and taxpayers alike would wish to limit their spending on infrastructure projects[vii].

Sydney’s vast transport infrastructure projects have yet to play out, but perhaps we can already see a cargo cult at work in the globally-remarkable scale of project spending announcements; in their wafer-thin business case approvals; in the multi-billion dollar variations made on the wing and in the apparent flouting of basic transport design policy norms.

In all of this, something more than an advisory deficit appears to be at work.

A forthcoming article will examine the Productivity Commission’s latest prescriptions for doing better.

Luke Fraser is the founder and principal of a transport policy and investment advisory. In 2012 he was appointed to the board of the Prime Minister and Premiers Road Reform Project. From the late 1990s he spent over a decade in Canberra in several APS executive, Ministerial chief of staff and industry CEO roles across the transport and Defence sectors.




[iii] The exception appears to be the Westgate tunnel project, which can be viewed as a symptom of Melbourne wrestling with how to approach its key east-west commute in the absence of an East-West motorway and a congested Westgate Bridge.






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