WestConnex funding in dispute ahead of budget

Posted: May 14, 2013 in Transport
Tags: , , , , ,

Both major parties have committed funding towards the NSW Government’s signature road project, WestConnex, ahead of the federal election this year. In doing so it has become a textbook example of all the significant players putting politics ahead of good policy.

The Federal Labor Government, which had previously committed $1bn, recently upped its funding offer to $1.8bn as part of its annual budget, on the condition that it include “direct routes through to the CBD and Port Botany” and that “new tolls should not be imposed on existing un-tolled roads” (Source: Anthony Albanese). The push to link up to Port Botany has merits, and will take freight trucks off local roads around Botany and Masacot. The link to the CBD is more questionable, given that roads do a terrible job at transporting large numbers of people into a compact activity centre like the CBD. While the limitation placed on new tolls is a populist measure that goes against the recommendation of its own advisory body, of Infrastructure Australia, which normally makes the imposition of tolls a requirement for the provision of funding.

When asked whether the City West Link was sufficient to satisfy the requirement for a direct route through to the CBD, a spokesperson for the Infrastructure and Transport Minister told this blog that WestConnex did not connect to the City West Link. When it was pointed out that the current plans for WestConnex do include such a link, he added that “Infrastructure Australia has advised that there is inadequate links to get people to the city and freight to the port”.

Map of the proposed WestConnex alignment showing it connecting to the City West Link. (Source: WestConnex – Sydney’s next motorway priority, Infrastructure NSW, p. 17)

Map of the proposed WestConnex alignment showing it includes a connection to the City West Link, but no connection to Port Botany. (Source: WestConnex – Sydney’s next motorway priority, Infrastructure NSW, p. 17)

On the issue of whether the widened portions of the M4 and M5 constituted an existing un-tolled road, this blog was told that these were considered existing roads, and that new tolls must not be imposed there in order for the NSW Government to be eligible for the $1.8bn in funding. The spokesperson for the Minister argued that a policy of no new tolls being introduced on existing roads was the “NSW govt’s position before the [2011] election”.

What the NSW Liberal Party’s actual commitments prior to the 2011 election are difficult to find, as policy platforms tend to get taken down from party websites soon after an election, but the following document listing the transport policies of the 3 major parties has been archived by UTS. It does not include any mention of a commitment to not impose tolls on existing roads. However, Roads Minister Duncan Gay did say in June 2012 that “we won’t be putting tolls on roads in their current state…We would only consider tolls as part of the package of improvements and provision of new roads” (Source: NineMSN). This may boil down to an issue of semantics, and whether existing roads and improved roads are the same or different.

On the other side of Parliament, the Federal Liberal Party has put forward $1.5bn towards WestConnex, on the condition that it link up with the CBD, but without the Port Botany link or toll-free requirements. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has ruled out matching Labor’s $1.8bn, saying that “We will not be adding one dollar more than the $1.5 billion that we’ve committed and we can account for” (Source: Sky News), even though Opposition Leader Tony Abbott did exactly that with the M2 to F3 tunnel less than a week ago when he matched Labor’s contribution of $400m. Not that it would matter, given that WestConnex would not be eligible for this funding regardless of who is in the Lodge after September based on the current plan.

None of this leaves the NSW Government off the hook. It is now becoming clear that it did not do its homework on WestConnex before announcing its decision to give it the green light. The suggestion from Infrastructure NSW for a slot design along Parramatta Road has now been discredited as more expensive, not less, than the tunnel option, while its recommendation to build an underground CBD bus tunnel through the CBD rather than light rail along George St was rubbished by Transport for NSW. When given the task of recommending one new road project for Sydney out of the M4 East, M5 East, and M2 to F3 tunnel, Infrastructure NSW recommended two of the three (M4 East and M5 East) as well as another road that was not even on the priority list (the Inner West Bypass) in order to link the former 2 up and technically make it a single contiguous road project, a long bow by anyone’s standards.

It should be clear that Infrastructure NSW cannot be trusted to design transport projects and recommend which ones to build, as all of its attempts to date have been littered with problems. It should instead focus on what it can do – act as a middleman between the government and the private sector in order to obtain private funding to build infrastructure.

Given these continued failures to put the politics aside when it comes to building essential infrastructure, it’s no surprise that the electorate remains cynical of governments’ abilities to do the job effectively.

  1. Dudley Horscroft says:

    ISTR that Barry O’Farrell has stated that any extension to the CBD is not on. This is because there is no room for any extra cars in the City, and parking spaces would be prohibitively expensive. Barry O’Farrell has also stated, when JG promised money, that it would not go ahead if it cost more than $10M. This was in relation to the additional $3B she wanted to add to the price, while promising $1B, and requiring no tolls. No tolls – no private partnership! No private partnership, NSW will not spend $10B it does not have – $13B with any extra link to the CBD less $1.5B from Tony.

    Anyway, I can’t see Clover permitting more car spaces unless they are in high rise or underground spaces – and consider the cost for these.

    With a bit of luck, it is dead. Only way to revive it is to reduce the size of the project, and increase the tolls so it will be profitable. If the tolls are large enough, there will be no congestion even though the tunnel is smaller – two lanes or four lanes instead of six – and the rich will be willing to pay for the pleasure of a fast run through the small tunnel.

    Far cheaper and better is to improve the rail service, including a direct electric service from Parramatta to KSA, (the tracks are already there) and double track the rest of the way to Port Botany. Improving the power weight ration of the next generation of trains will give better results for the suburban services, meaning that the stopping trains on the western line will not hold up the expresses so much, the latter can run faster.

  2. Federal Labor’s requirement is for “no new tolls on existing un-tolled roads”. So tolls will happen either way, it’s just uncertain as to how much of it will be tolled.

    This means that most of the cost of construction will be funded by users (who will pay a toll to use WestConnex), whereas a public transport project’s construction costs, like the rail one suggested, would have to be fully funded by the government.

    So if only the cost to the taxpayer is considered, it’s actually cheaper to build a road. That is the appeal of them, as far as cost goes.

  3. Ray says:

    There’s a lot of misinformation being bandied around. The Federal Government DID say “no new tolls on EXISTING un-tolled roads”. It DIDN’T say there should NOT be a toll on the NEW roadworks. However, the State Government playing politics is insinuating that the Federal Government’s condition is for NO tolls at all. Pretty shameful gutter politics.

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