The government released the final version of its Transport Masterplan earlier today, along with the light rail feasibility study (Sydney’s Light Rail Future), in which it announced its final decision on some key transport projects. The uncertainty stemmed from differing reports handed down by both Transport for NSW (the Transport Masterplan) and Infrastructure NSW (First Things First), which the government had to reconcile. Where both reports agreed, the recommendations were adopted, and where they conflicted, Transport for NSW got the final say every time. As a result, a 2nd Harbour Crossing will be happening, the CBD bus tunnel has been rejected, light rail will be built all the way from Circular Quay to Randwick (rather than a truncated version from Central to Randwick), and a second Sydney Airport at Badgerys Creek was rejected. I think the last one was the wrong call, but it’s more of an issue for the federal government, so it’s not too concerning.
The most high profile debate was between light rail on George St or a bus tunnel through the CBD. While I didn’t agree with everything in the Infrastructure NSW Report, one thing I did appreciate about it was how it prioritised the projects with lower cost to the taxpayer, thus ensuring that more of them could be built. It did this through user pays tollways, finding ways to get more out of the existing infrastructure, looking for ways of obtaining the same outcome for a lower cost, etc. It was therefore quite strange to see this report endorsing the bus tunnel option, which cost $2bn, over light rail through the CBD, the George St portion of which cost $500m. The reason for this appears to be that Infrastructure NSW set out with the goal of finding out how to make sure light rail didn’t happen, rather than finding the best way of maximising mobility for the greatest number of people. As a result, it ended up with this bizarre recommendation.
Transport for NSW tears the bus tunnel to shreds:
It would not be feasible to build an underground tunnel between Wynyard and Town Hall due to existing building basements and tunnels. In addition, ventilation, access and safety are significant viability issues.
To provide the necessary bus capacity, the bus tunnel would need to be four lanes wide and provide wide platforms. This is likely to be physically unfeasible and economically unviable.
Infrastructure NSW has estimated it would cost $2 billion to build a tunnel in the CBD. The city component of the CBD and South East Light Rail project is a quarter of the cost – about $500 million – and will deliver significantly greater benefits for Sydney.
Building connections to the Cross City Tunnel and Sydney Harbour Bridge, redeveloping two major train stations and building a new bus tunnel will present a number of untested construction impacts on the CBD. Building new bus stations would have an impact on the operation of Town Hall and Wynyard Stations, affecting the journey of approximately 140,000 passengers every weekday. – Transport for NSW (13 Dec, 2012), Sydney’s Light Rail Future (page 26)
Ultimately the debate within cabinet appeared to boil down to 2 things: cost and disruption. The cost, at $500m, was not insignificant, but much cheaper than the alternative of the bus tunnel, and though doing nothing would have been cheaper, it was probably not seen as a viable option. Cabinet was also concerned about disruption to the CBD right around the next election in 2015, so work will instead begin on the Randwick to Central Station portion, before starting on the George St portion later on.
All up, the new light rail line will cost $1.6bn in total to build, and will not open until 2019 or 2020 when the entire line is completed. When it does, it will be accompanied by a restructure of many of the bus routes through the city. The current bus routes is a spaghetti map of confusing and cris-crossing lines through the CBD. This will change, with buses to travel along one of 4 major corridors: 3 North-South corridors (Elizabeth St, Clarence St/York St, and Sussex St) plus one East-West corridor (Park St/Druitt St). This will allow for a simpler network that relies on high frequencies and interchanges by commuters. Integrated fares are an essential reform required to make sure that this works, allowing commuters to pay the same to get from A to B, regardless of how they get there, rather than the current situation where they are penalised financially for the inconvenience of having to make an interchange. Word is that cabinet will make a decision on fares in the new year, and this simple decision could possibly be the most important one that it makes in regards to transport.
The report also talks about considering further light rail in the longer term (10 to 20 years or further into the future). These include Victoria Rd, Parramatta Rd, an extension South to Maroubra or Malabar from Kingsford along Anzac Parade, an extension to Barangaroo from Circular Quay along Walsh Bay, and Parramatta Council’s Western Sydney light rail. The draft Transport Masterplan suggests the highest priority will go to light rail on Victoria Rd (though it might potentially end up as Bus Rapid Transit), though I’d give the Western Sydney light rail proposal a wild card chance of happening, particularly if it utilises the Carlingford Line to connect Parramatta to Macquarie Park.