Photo: Dan Himbrechts/AAP
Sydney has enjoyed a boom in public transport and road building over the past decade, but NSW’s so far timid election transport policies raise concerns that the accelerator is being taken off.
The main policy differences that have emerged between the Coalition and Labor revolve around how each side plans to expand the tube network to the west, band-aid solutions to tackle the cost of commuting through Sydney’s toll mess and support for a controversial tunnel.
Sydney’s public transport and road network today looks very different to when the New South Wales Coalition came to power in 2011, but the government’s legacy to date has been mixed. One success you can point to is light rail: trams are running around the city again, partly along pedestrianized sections of the city center that are now revitalized.
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Commuters have also had a taste of 21st century rail technology with the first section of the Sydney Underground. While the wait was long, the highly visible years of construction allowed residents to plan where to work and live. When the extended line opens in the next few years, it will be transformative in moving people around the city faster. Those who live near the stations may think twice before trusting a car.
Then there have been more controversial projects, such as WestConnex and the vast network of privatized, high-toll roads that Sydneysiders will have to navigate for decades to come, with those in the west feeling the most pressure.
While travel times have improved, driving from Bankstown to Barangaroo costs more than $56. Fares will increase progressively and road time savings are likely to decrease as the direct route incentivizes greater car adoption in western Sydney.
Labor is banking on frustration over what they have dubbed Sydney’s “toll mania” amid the cost-of-living crisis. Opposition leader Chris Minns has proposed limiting an individual’s weekly toll spending to $60, which is more generous than the Coalition’s existing reimbursement scheme. But the toll reduction policies of both parties will ultimately be borne by the taxpayer, not the private operators.
If Minns becomes prime minister, he won’t be able to decipher the omelette that is Sydney’s hodgepodge of private toll deals, but he has vowed to keep the under-construction Western Harbor tunnel crossing in public hands.
One key political difference is the Beaches Link Tunnel. Promised to stop traffic on Sydney’s car-dependent northern beaches, the project has faced years of pushback, including from neighboring communities with environmental concerns.
Minns has promised to scrap it. Perrottet’s government insists that he is committed to the tunnel pending planning approvals, but has been curiously silent on the project. The Beaches Link has not been mentioned in any Coalition press release this year and no timeline for construction has been set.
Labor has also said it will explore undoing bus contract privatizations, which have been accused of damaging service quality, and led frustrated residents to crowdfund their own “pirate” buses.
But now there are fears that deepening state debt will undermine the political will to maintain momentum in the construction of large projects that shape the city.
And here lies the clearest political difference: spending on the expansion of the metro.
Perrottet’s government will go ahead with business cases for four lines to connect to the future Sydney West Airport. Labor will only proceed with two, with the Coalition accusing them of abandoning western Sydney, an area earmarked for extraordinary residential development in the coming years.
While Labour’s hesitation stems from the position of financial responsibility they wish to project, the Coalition has been cornered into pledging against further privatization to finance infrastructure construction.
After all, these metro commitments are for business cases only, which means they’re far from a guarantee, especially under Perrottet.
This month, Guardian Australia revealed that the state government has quietly scrapped work on the final business case to build its own dedicated fast rail line between Sydney and Newcastle. That’s despite four years and roughly $100 million spent on feasibility studies for the policy, which Gladys Berejiklian led to the 2019 election.
Abandoning ambition has raised concerns that the state’s historic Six Cities policy of spreading population growth outside of Sydney is now doomed to fail.
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But even Labor does not support dedicated fast rail, something they know will be very expensive and deliver no visible benefit before the next election.
The timidity on both sides has urban planners worried.
“We’re still trying to catch up when it comes to transport infrastructure,” said Eamon Waterford, the Sydney Committee’s new chief executive who, until February, was director of strategy at the Department for Investment and Trade. “Sydney is growing fast, we may never catch up, but we have to do our best.
“It’s like eating an elephant, you have to do it little by little.”
In its priorities for a future NSW government issued on Friday, the committee urges progress on the tube and rapid rail projects.
“Now we have a lot of people in Sydney who are very good at building things,” Waterford said. “If we take our foot off the accelerator, that experience will go elsewhere.”
Whoever wins the election, the task of tackling clogged roads, the post-COVID-19 drop in public transport use and alleviating growing pains as Sydney expands is immense.