As our Liberal premier and prime minister grinned for the cameras this week, proudly announcing they would be jointly funding “Australia’s biggest infrastructure project” the hearts of many people sank. Rather than the project being a high speed rail line connecting Australia’s east coast capitals or new public transport systems for suburban Sydney the project they were discussing was the Westconnex mega-motorway, designed to funnel as many cars as possible from western Sydney to the city at a cost of $11.5 billion to the taxpayer.
Such a project is incredibly short-sighted, stuck in a 1950s mindset of people in the western suburbs all piling into their cars to head off to work in the City each morning then back again that evening. It’s a mind set that cannot work in Sydney in 2013.
One of the biggest issues, that none of the glossy presentations go any way to addressing, is the question of where the 60 000 extra cars that are expected to use Westconnex each weekday will go when they reach their destination. Parking in the City has nothing approaching that capacity available and unless the government intends to bulldoze dozens of high rise buildings or the Botanic Gardens to make room for vast multi-storey parking lots there is simply no room for any more.
There is also the issue of cost. Around $8 billion of the total cost of the project is intended to be funded by distance based tolling that will cap out at around $7.70 each way. A commuter from Penrith using the road five days per week will thus pay around $77 per week in tolls alone. The same driver in an average car would expect to pay about $60 a week for petrol, putting the price tag of their weekly commute at more than 20% of the minimum wage even before considering parking which, with land prices in Sydney being what they are, won’t be cheap if it can be found at all.
This motorway will thus be only affordable by the wealthy, paid for by all taxpayers to serve an elite few who can bear the cost of spending $100-200 a week on commuting. Although it’s possible that lower income earners will be forced onto the motorway and into significant financial stress by the lack of other transport options, which seems likely given Abbott’s pre-election committment to not fund public transport projects.
The money being spent on this project could provide much more sustainable and equitable transport services elsewhere. It could be used to fund light rail along Parramatta rd, achieving the revitalisation of this corridor (something that we’re meant to believe will come from the building of Westconnex) by removing the need for many cars down its length.
Alternatively, it could fund public transport in western Sydney like the Macquarie Park-Castle Hill-Parramatta light rail link proposed by Parramatta Council, which could help shift the focus of Sydney’s growth away from the city centre and help strengthen the economy of the west.
Looking further afield, Abbott could redirect the $1.8 billion he’s promised to the project to plugging the $4.5 billion he’s decided to pull out of overseas aid, using it to improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest people, many of whom fund the prosperity of nations like Australia through cheap labour, and who will suffer the worst effects of climate change as a result of our opulent lifestyles.
Whichever way you look at it, Westconnex is a poor use of money and a poor solution to Sydney’s congestion problems. Better ideas are out there, with groups such as Ecotransit Sydney having developed innovative, cost effective and sustainable solutions where governments have failed to do so and in 21st Century Australia these are the kind of solutions we deserve.