Infrastructure Australia (IA), the Federal Government body responsible for handing out Federal Government funding for infrastructure projects, has rejected a submission by the NSW Government to fund the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL). In its response, IA head Michael Deegan argued that the submission was not detailed enough and that the NWRL is not Sydney’s top priority as there is insufficient capacity for trains to enter the CBD via the Harbour Bridge. Mr Deegan says that IA will continue talks with NSW, but that the final decision lies with the federal government.
One of IA’s proposals, to run more buses from the Northwest, was rejected by Premier Barry O’Farrell. Given the lack of capacity for buses in the CBD, it’s understandable why he would take this view. Part of the reason for a NWRL is that buses can only take a certain level of capacity, and that long distance trips into the CBD (as well as to the job rich arc that spans between North Sydney to Macquarie Park) should be done on high capacity rail rather than low capacity buses.
This clash continues the saga between the NSW and Federal governments, which began when the Federal Labor Government promised to pay $2.1bn of the cost to construct the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) in its 2007 election and then the NSW Liberal Government (then in opposition) promised to build the NWRL ahead of the PERL in its 2011 election.
Now it seems neither party is willing to budge. The federal government, keen to get its budget back into surplus, is probably quietly happy to let this funding remain in its coffers. Meanwhile, the NSW government appears to be pinning its hopes on a change of Federal Government and that a future Prime Minister Tony Abbott would be more open to providing NSW with access to those funds. Either way, the NWRL looks set to go ahead, so the fight over the $2.1bn is essentially to determine whether or not other infrastructure gets built or not, rather than whether the NWRL will get built.
Probably the only one who is happy about the current impasse is Cr Lorraine Wearne, Lord Mayor of Parramatta City Council. Having seen the writing on the wall for the PERL, her council has been pushing for a light rail network for Parramatta and wants part of the $2.1bn to be earmarked for this project. To this effort, Parramatta is also commissioning a $1m feasibility study into a light rail network centred around Parramatta.
The NSW Government’s response was a cautious maybe, with Acting Premier Andrew Stoner calling the $9.5bn price tag “a heck of a lot of money”, but also saying that “if they are able to convince us, if they are able to convince Infrastructure NSW, we might facilitate it”. This would be consistent with comments by State Treasurer Mike Baird, who said he was looking at opportunities to move government offices to Parramatta.
I have previously raised the option of a circuit breaker (here and here) like this as a way of ending the impasse on this issue, and while I think it’s less likely than more that this will be successful, I do think there is a chance that it might go ahead.