When Infrastructure NSW suggested the state government build a rapid bus transit (BRT) tunnel underneath the Sydney CBD, it caught most people following the issue by surprise. The idea, still embryonic, has not been looked at in detail, and lacks any form of substantial feasibility study – unlike the idea of putting light rail along George St which the BRT tunnel is meant to replace. These two projects have now been pitted against each other, with a meeting of cabinet this week expected to determine which one will be funded and built by the government.
But are these two projects mutually exclusive? A recent meeting at the Sydney Town Hall hosted by Lord Mayor Clover Moore suggested that this was an either/or situation. This meeting was almost unanimous in its support for light rail, a view shared by the Sydney Morning Herald, but not Heath Aston, the state political editor of its sister publication the Sun Herald, who decided to back the BRT tunnel.
The two actually serve different corridors through the CBD: the BRT tunnel will link buses that enter the CBD from the Anzac and Harbour Bridges which run along the Western corridor of York and Clarence Streets, while light rail would replace buses from the Eastern Suburbs that predominantly use the Central and Eastern corridors of George and Elizabeth Streets. (It’s true that the BRT tunnel will also take buses from Broadway, via George St, but this will require them to be re-routed from Circular Quay in the East to Wynyard to the West.) So it can’t be for that reason.
The actual reason appears to have more to do with budgetary constraints. With each project estimated to cost $1bn-$2bn (depending on what assumptions are used), the government is likely to only have the cash to build one of the two, and that is the reason why this is an either/or situation.
And though I have rubbished the current plan for the BRT tunnel as one that “needs to die an unholy death”, it’s a concept that’s not entirely without merit. For example, it would greatly enhance the ability for buses to throughroute, effectively joining 2 bus lines that enter the CBD from opposite ends, halving the number of vehicles required to operate the same number of services and providing passengers with greater cross city connections. It could also provide additional space for bus interchanges, and place them closer to train stations to make multi-modal trips easier. It seems almost a no brainer to use the platforms at Wynyard Station previously used for trams crossing the Harbour Bridge and terminating in the CBD, but converted to handle buses now crossing the Bridge.
Where the BRT tunnel falls short is that Infrastructure NSW has clearly come up with this idea to convince the government to trash George St light rail, rather than because it fits into a bigger picture of transport planning, like the idea that there are multiple North-South transport spines through the CBD.
While the BRT tunnel will primarily ease congestion on the Western spine of Clarence and York (NWRL) and converting long haul M2 buses into feeder buses, followed by a second Harbour crossing to increase capacity. It should come as no surprise that Infrastructure NSW also opposes this second Harbour crossing, but given that the NWRL will be built and therefore make the Harbour crossing the bottleneck on the network, the question over a second Harbour crossing is now when, not if.
Should the BRT tunnel be built instead of light rail, then it will improve transport connections on the Western corridor, but do little for the other corridors. Meanwhile, the tunnel will also use up the metro Pitt corridor, one of two corridors through the CBD which has been preserved for a future heavy rail line, severely limiting any future expansion of Sydney’s rail network. In addition, it will also shut down Town Hall and/or Wynyard Stations while the tunnel is being built. Ironically, Infrastructure NSW seems to show great concern at the disruption that shutting down George St (one of many streets through the CBD) would cause to motor vehicle traffic, yet has few qualms with doing the same to the 2 busiest stations in the Cityrail network (or to avoid a second Harbour crossing).
Light rail is by no means perfect. It will probably be slower than many predict (albeit faster than the slow crawl of buses we currently have at peak hour). But it is the option that has been studied, and it is the option that the transport department believes best fits into the big picture of its citywide transport plan. That is why cabinet should support the light rail option, and commit the BRT tunnel idea to Transport for NSW for further feasibility study.