When it comes infrastructure we are own worst enemies

STONE the crows! How is that NSW has doubled infrastructure spending in the last five years, but Sydney still suffers from utterly inadequate roads and railways?[i]

There are all sorts of obvious answers, as well as the one that everybody in government avoids because it is so alarming – most people assume that economic growth occurs without inconvenience.

Certainly government does not make building infrastructure easy.

There is incompetent project management, of the kind that underestimated demand for the M5 East by 30 per cent plus.[ii] And of the very special Nathan Rees variety that spent $400 million on the CBD metro, which never looked like being built.[iii]

There is cost-effective opportunism that allowed the state Labor government to repeatedly announce the northwest railway while never getting round to building it. The line was first proposed in 1998 for completion in 2010. By 2010, the completion date was 2024. [iv] Despite only being in office for a year the O’Farrell Government will finish it more quickly than that.

There is the bureaucratic inertia that stopped the extension of the Central-Lilyfield light rail along an existing freight line to Dulwich Hill for years. Whatever the problems with the project, they disappeared when the O’Farrell Government was elected and work commenced. [v]

There is also the sheer cost of building anything, especially since Prime Minister Gillard re-regulated industrial relations.

Premier O’Farrell is playing politics in calling for a Productivity Commission inquiry into the cost of infrastructure construction – COAG did not pick up the proposal on Friday – but he has a point.[vi] Public transport advocacy organisation Ecotransit claims the Swiss are building a new rail tunnel under the Alps, a much tougher engineering task than the northwest link, for a quarter of the price per kilometre. [vii]

And then there is the NSW public service which produced no less than seven state transport plans between 1998 and 2010. [viii] If Jim Henson had commissioned this lot to build the Muppet Motorway, Kermit and Fozzie would still be looking for the fork in the road.

And, of course, there are politicians who prefer deferring difficult decisions. Premier O’Farrell deserves points for actually building the northwest line, doing something Labor promised but never delivered. However, he is creating his own equivalent with his adamant opposition to a new Sydney airport.

Granted he is certainly not the first minister, past or present, to hope the question of what to do when Kingsford Smith reaches capacity goes away. But he and federal transport minister Anthony Albanese are in the cockpit and unless they are prepared to bet that improved technology and better logistics will ensure endless extra capacity at KSA they need to do something now.

According to an independent report by senior bureaucrats and business representatives, the airport will be at absolute capacity by 2035. [ix]

Barry O’Farrell is floating expanding Canberra Airport and connecting it to Sydney via a very fast train. [x] It’s the sort of blue-sky solution which keeps the issue off the agenda indefinitely. The same goes for Anthony Albanese’s enthusiasm for a second airport at Badgerys Creek, sorry Wilton.[xi]

The Crows aren’t holding their breath on either happening. Canberra is too far away and the locals are already explaining why anywhere but Wilton is the best location for an airport. There are developments which could house as many as 75,000 people (or as few as none, nothing is approved yet) being contemplated. [xii] And there is the usual environmental opposition, planes could fly over Sydney’s catchment, “polluting the water”! [xiii]

Which is why Badgerys Creek and the Rozelle metro were never built and why there has been only infrastructure on the drawing board for generations. Enough people get used to the idea, and nothing is ever built. And it’s why Sydney is choking on inadequate roads and too few trains.

As the member for Kiama, Gareth Ward, explained over opposition to an airport at Wilton, “I’m sure everyone will be saying this is something needed in the Sydney basin but I’m sure if those people lived anywhere near where it was going to go, they’d be the first ones to oppose it.’’[xiv]

We have created an urban culture where people believe economic growth is an imposition and that any project that inconveniences them is immoral.

It is why the O’Farrell Government steps quietly on considering the essential extension of the M4 to connect the western freeway to the airport, lest the homeowners of the inner west go even greener than they already are. Certainly their organ of choice editorialises against the project, because, well the world might run short of oil. [xv]

It is why the Chatswood Epping railway was tunnelled under the Lane Cove River when a bridge would have been cheaper and more efficient, because locals kicked up about the environment. [xvi]

Of course, Sydney does not have a monopoly on this madness. In Hobart, the self-righteous are enraged about the possibility of a cable car to the top of Mount Wellington on the grounds that a howling wilderness should remain, well a wilderness. [xvii] And this in a mendicant state where any investment that expands the economy is essential, if only to reduce the subsidies from the rest of the country that keeps it afloat![xviii]

Fortunately, there are local precedents on how to beat the bureaucrats and stare down the enemies of economic growth.

In NSW, Laurie Brereton crashed through opposition and built what was needed. [xix] Imagine if he had buckled in the face of opposition to the harbour tunnel? In fact, you don’t need to imagine what life would be like with one crossing, the weekend triathlon, which shut the bridge, will give you an idea. [xx]

In Victoria Jeff Kennett, admirably emulated by Steve Bracks and John Brumby, transformed Melbourne by building roads. The enemies of growth hate them still but the Crows got from Spring St to Tullamarine in a bit under half an hour the other day – an impossible feat 15 years ago.

Despite his ambivalence over the airport, Premier O’Farrell shows signs of having the same sort of mettle. By standing up to the government employee unions over pay rises he demonstrates he intends to spend money on the state not its public servants.[xxi]

So all he has to do is defy every interest group which does not care what happens to the economy as long as there is no new motorway or railway too close to them. With his majority he can afford to stare the nimbies down.

For stared down they must be.

When it comes to infrastructure, in the immortal words of Walt Kelly “we have met the enemy and he is us.”


[i] Matt Wade, “Big spending fails to boost infrastructure,” Sydney Morning Herald April 10

[ii] Halcrow MWT, M5 East Expansion: traffic modelling report (2009) 8 @ http://ecotransit.org.au/ets/files/NSW_IA_M5-Expansion/M5-Expansion_Minimum-Info-Req_2009-01-20_Part-3.pdf recovered on April 13

[iii] Jacob Saulwick, “Former CBD metro chief to drive north-west rail link,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 7

[iv] Rhonda Daniels, “The impact of discontinuity in governance: How transport planning went off the rails in Sydney,” Institute of Transport and Logistic Studies, University of Sydney, (2011) 10 @ http://sydney.edu.au/business/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/119279/ITLS-WP-11-24.pdf recovered on April 13

[v] http://lightrailextension.metrotransport.com.au/ recovered on April 13

[vi] “COAG: O’Farrell wants infrastructure costs inquiry,” ABC News, April 13 @ http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-04-13/coag3a-o27farrell-wants-infrastructure-costs-inquiry/3947902?section=nsw, David Crowe, “Premiers back disability reforms,” The Australian, April 14

[vii] Ecotransit Sydney, “Tunnelling for rail: what it really costs,” http://www.ecotransit.org.au/ets/files/Rail-Tunnelling-Factsheet

recovered on April 13, Jacob Saulwick, “Greens condemn rail tunnel costs,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 7 2011

[viii] Kerry Schott et al, NSW Commission of Audit, Interim Report: Public Sector Management , January 2012, 174 @ http://www.treasury.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0013/21604/NSW_Commission_of_Audit_InterimReport_Public_Sector_Management_web_dnd.pdf recovered on April 13

[ix] Mike Mrdak et al, Joint study of aviation capacity for the Sydney region, 6 @ http://www.infrastructure.gov.au/aviation/sydney_av_cap/files/sydney_aviation_capacity_exec_summary.pdf recovered on April 13

[x] Susannah Moran, “Premier Barry O’Farrell’s high speed rail plan is not NSW government policy,” The Australian, April 2011

[xi] Lenore Taylor, “Albanese kick-starts airport at Wilton,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 12

[xii] Matthew Moore, Clash of Ambitions: 25,000 homes or a new Sydney airport,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 13

[xiii] Denis Boyle, Letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, April 13

[xiv] Bevan Shields, “Political row hits second airport,” Illawarra Mercury, April 11

[xv] “All roads lead to more roads,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 5 2010

[xvi] Heath Aston, “It’s the centrepiece of his rail plan. And like a Government, it’s a joke,” Daily Telegraph, December 7 2007

[xvii] ABC radio, “Beautiful, but where’s the coffee,” AM http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2012/s3476376.htm recovered on April 14

[xviii] Matthew Denholm, “Clean, green and leaning on the mainland,” The Australian, April 9

[xix] Hamish McDonald, “Take a look north for the road ahead,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 12

[xx] NSW Roads and Traffic Authority, “ITU triathlon road closures, 14-15 April” http://www.rta.nsw.gov.au/newsevents/events/itu_triatlon_road_closures.html recovered on April 15

[xxi] Sean Nicholls, “And now for Act II,” Sydney Morning Herald,” March 24 2012