INVESTING in new roads or new rail can be a very effective way to reduce congestion and boost economic productivity; a critical precondition for job creation. But when governments spend billions of scarce public dollars on new roads or rail lines they ought to be certain upfront that they get it right and that the investment delivers on the desired outcome.
For example, there is no point building a road to cope with today’s traffic when you know that 10 years from now it will be three times as busy. That’s what happened when the M5 was built two decades ago. Had designers thought about future traffic projections at the time there would be no need for an expensive retrofit.
History is repeating itself with the North-West Rail link, where the tunnel under construction won’t be large enough to take double-decker trains.
It’s also being built on a different rail gauge, meaning it can’t be integrated with the rest of the rail network and commuters will have to change trains at a packed Chatswood station.
Such examples highlight the importance of proper planning to ensure the M4 takes motorists all the way to the city and the M5 takes freight all the way to the port. The current Westconnex proposal does not achieve either of these aims.
Judging from the messaging in Tuesday night’s Budget, the objective of building Westconnex seems to have suddenly shifted from the previous sensible aim of providing access to the port and city, to providing access to the airport.
But directing traffic into the already congested area to the west of the airport is shortsighted.
It’s a road to a traffic jam.
With Sydney’s freight task expected to double over the coming two decades, improved access to the port is fundamental for productivity and for removing heavy vehicles from local suburban roads.
Tuesday’s Budget provides no new money for Westconnex.
It actually cuts funding by $300 million from the $1.8 billion set aside by the former Labor government in the 2013 budget, although the government has also held out the prospect of a loan to help fund the project.
The important thing is to ensure the Westconnex delivers on the real needs of Sydney; improving car access to the city and freight access to the port.
Given these issues are not yet resolved, the only part of Westconnex likely to commence in the foreseeable future is a widening of the existing M4 with a new toll.
But motorists in Western Sydney will not thank any government that imposes a new toll on an existing road that starts and ends at the same locations.
The other take-out on road funding in Tuesday’s Budget was the Government’s transparent attempt to divert public attention away from its broken promises and cuts to health, education and pensions by stressing proposed infrastructure investment.
Overwhelmingly the projects the government offered as evidence of its commitment to infrastructure investment were actually already included in the budget by the previous Labor government.
There’s no better example than the newly named Northconnex project, providing the missing link between the F3 and the M2.
The government attempted to portray the $405 million investment in the Budget as a new initiative.
In fact, Labor delivered this allocation in full in the 2013 budget.
The money started to flow in June, 2013.
Genuine nation building requires real investment.
And it requires government action to ensure that projects achieve their productivity objectives.
This article appeared in today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph: http://bit.ly/REUHpF
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.