Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian refused to change the alignment of the proposed South East Light Rail Line from Devonshire Street when she faced hostile Surry Hills residents on Monday evening in a community forum organised by the City of Sydney. Many of those who attended reside on the controversial Devonshire St route. A number were angry at what they described as insufficient consultation, with one resident telling Ms Berejiklian “don’t offend us in the future by suggesting this is a consultation. This is not a consultation”. There were also concerns about uncertainty over the future of Devonshire Street and Surry Hills. The new line could see a loss of on street parking and compulsory acquisition of properties, particularly for residents of the Olivia Gardens apartment block on the Eastern end of Devonshire Street, in order to get the line from George Street to Anzac Parade. Some forum participants questioned whether the line could reach Anzac Parade via another route, but these suggestions were rejected.
Ms Berejiklian accepted that the project was bad for Devonshire Street, at one point almost pleading “if I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be here” to an audience seemingly cynical about her motives. But she insisted that for the rest of Surry Hills there would be many positive benefits that light rail would provide, such as being a catalyst for urban renewal. She also argued that if the alignment were changed, then she would be having a similar conversation with a different group of people, and that as it was the most viable route, the Devonshire Street alignment would remain.
Deputy Director General of Transport for NSW outlined the different alignments considered. He stressed that connectivity with the rest of the network (at Central Station in particular, as this would allow interchanges with buses to occur there, rather than further into the city at Town Hall) and the ability to generate a sufficient level of patronage were both required for the line to be viable.
- Cleveland Street – this the major East-West road in Surry Hills and it would not be possible to shift its traffic elsewhere if 2 lanes were used exclusively for trams.
- Devonshire Street (surface) – would require some property acquisitions.
- Devonshire Street (tunnel) – costs hundreds of millions more than a surface option. Eliminates the possibility of a Surry Hills stop and the possibility for urban renewal. Safety concerns from the depth required.
- Foveaux Street/Albion Street – too steep, with almost double the maximum 7% gradient that trams can handle. This is particularly problematic when going downhill as trams may not be able to brake in time.
- Campbell Street/Elizabeth Street – requires trams to loop back to Central Station, adding 4 minutes to each trip, which would cut estimated patronage by a third.
- Campbell Street – skips Central Station, a key transport interchange, which would cut estimated patronage by a third.
- Oxford Street – skips Central Station, a key transport interchange, which would cut estimated patronage by a third. Also requires buses from Bondi Junction to share the street with trams
All options presented challenges. Eliminating those with insufficient patronage and major disruptions to traffic flows leaves only the two Devonshire Street options. The decision to go with the surface options suggests that the desire to spend less on construction was more important than the community anger such a decision would create.
Though the Devonshire Street alignment will not be altered, residents were encouraged to take part in further community consultations which will determine how the project will proceed in areas where flexibility does exist. This would extend to things such as what times constructions would occur, where stops would be located, and how Moore Park is crossed. Ms Berejiklian listed a viaduct or tunnel as potential options for the latter.
The Minister also refused to pass the buck onto Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, who chaired the meeting, stating that “for my sins, I take full responsibility” and pointing out that this was a state government project in response to a resident who accused Ms Moore of not taking her share of the blame for the situation. She also assured residents that fares would be set by the government regardless of who the operator was, and that light rail would be included in the Opal smartcard rollout.
Ms Moore concluded the meeting by recounting that Surry Hills residents opposed the construction of the Eastern Distributor over decade ago. Yet community engagement on this project allowed for many benefits, such as reducing most street speed limits to 40km per hour, converting Crown and Bourke Streets to 2 way, as well as the inclusion of parking and landscaping on South Dowling Street. It was things like these which turned Surry Hills into the village that it is today, and suggested that light rail’s urban renewal would be beneficial for the suburb, not detrimental.