Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Matters of Public Interest
New South Wales: Infrastructure
New South Wales is stuck in the grip of an ongoing transport crisis with no solution in sight. For decades the state's roads budget has outstripped the rail budget. In Sydney, privately owned toll roads have spread like a blight, greenfield land releases have been approved with little or no corresponding public transport infrastructure, and traffic congestion and air pollution are at an all-time high. Regional country rail services have been slashed, regional passenger lines closed and rural rail branch lines left to decay while freight truck numbers rise sharply. It will require a mammoth undertaking to undo years of gross underinvestment in rail services and public transport in New South Wales and to overcome the developer-driven urban planning failures in Sydney and the regional centres. These planning failures undermine our economy and make our roads more dangerous.
The New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change has long been aware that vehicle use is climbing and air pollution is worsening, and that climate change will mean warmer temperatures and higher ozone levels. Strategic transport planning in New South Wales has been unduly influenced by groups with vested interests: motorway builders, property developers and their financiers, and the powerful transport lobby. For two decades, these companies gave many millions of dollars in corporate donations to both New South Wales Labor and the New South Wales coalition, with well over $20 million in donations from property developers alone. At the same time, they won planning decisions that heavily favoured their business. The losers have been the people of New South Wales and our democratic system of government.
New South Wales has suffered at the hands of successive state governments that have been unwilling to place the public interest ahead of those powerful vested interests. The beleaguered transport system will perhaps be the most lasting legacy of the recent New South Wales Labor government to Sydney, with its motorway madness scarring the city for decades to come. Sydney's trains are overcrowded, especially the long commutes from Greater Western Sydney, and the rail network does not service much of the sprawling population. The future for public transport looks grim. The New South Wales government does not have the political will to build the projects that are so urgently needed. The government will not borrow the money required.
The decades-long stagnation of public transport services in New South Wales has led to a crisis in public confidence. A survey by the University of Sydney earlier this year found that the majority of New South Wales residents were not confident that transport in their local area would improve, with more than three-quarters of New South Wales residents believing that the situation would be the same or worse in a year's time. This was in contrast to the rest of the country, where an increase in transport confidence was recorded. Tellingly, more than half of New South Wales residents thought public transport was the highest-priority transport issue in Australia. For over a decade, the New South Wales budget has favoured major road projects at the expense of rail. The O'Farrell government is showing the same reluctance that the Labor government before it did with regard to going into debt in the short term to deliver a world-class publicly owned transport system that will serve future generations.
Increasingly, people are looking to the federal government to fund these critical public transport improvements, to reopen regional rail services and rescue Sydney from crippling traffic jams, worsening air quality and lost productivity. While the federal government is putting funding into New South Wales transport projects, the money favours roads over rail, to the detriment of public transport planning. This year's national federal spending on roads will outstrip spending on rail by a ratio of five to one. The best estimate I have been given for this year is $5.3 million on roads compared to $1.2 billion on rail. There is virtually nothing allocated for bicycle pathways or active transport.
Federal investment in New South Wales transport over the six-year life of the government's Nation Building Program was increased this year by $339 million, bringing the total New South Wales transport related infrastructure investment to a record $12.1 billion over six years. Now, that is impressive, but there is a catch: each year, rail is receiving only a fraction of the money being allocated to roads. New South Wales will continue to suffer from this strategic failure to invest in rail infrastructure by both state and federal governments. Our rail services and rail lines have barely stepped out of the 19th century. We still have winding rail tracks. It is acknowledged that we need to straighten and upgrade roads, and massive amounts of money are being put into doing just that, but why doesn't that happen for our rail lines? Our all-important rail links are very much the poor cousin when it comes to transport funding.
The Gillard government's $4 billion investment in the Pacific Highway so far is a marked increase on the paltry $1.3 billion invested over the 12 years of the Howard government. It is amazing that the Nationals ever got away with that poor spending record. I have visited many communities over the years who are seeking road and highway upgrades to address safety concerns over bad stretches of road. That spending is clearly needed, but the investment we are seeing here to expand the Pacific Highway to a major motorway is a classic case of responding to the pressures of the powerful truck lobby. Minister Albanese's website states:
… interstate freight between Sydney and Brisbane is predicted to almost triple by 2029, with 80 per cent of this growth destined to be carried by trucks using the Pacific Highway …
Northern New South Wales is set to become a giant truck stop between Sydney and Brisbane. The impact of truck freight is massive. In the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, the locals are also deeply troubled by the volume of freight being transported by trucks on the Great Western Highway. For too long, successive governments have been slaves to the truck industry, with disastrous results for the environment and road safety, and excessive working hours for truck drivers.
The Greens believe that the future of Australia's transport needs would be better served by an expanded freight rail and high-speed rail network. The closure of rural rail branch lines in New South Wales is so deeply wrong. I have worked with farmers in western New South Wales, lobbying for their branch lines to be maintained and restored. Each harvest season, rural rail branch lines lie in ruinous neglect across the state, while there has been a threefold increase in B-double trucks on our roads in the last decade. It hurts regional communities, whose councils have to bear the financial burden of repairing the roads and whose roads have become much more dangerous for locals and tourists alike. Our future food security now depends on truck transport. Consumers will pay for rising petrol costs in the price they pay for fresh food at the cash register, as dwindling oil supplies will drive up petrol prices. I have also visited North Coast communities working hard to get their regional rail line from Casino to Murwillumbah restored. It was closed by the Labor government. Transport Minister Albanese would bring credit to his government and to his party if he were to reopen that line, expand it to run as a local commuter service and extend it into Queensland. There has even been talk of ripping up rail lines. It seems like madness in this day and age to be talking about removing rail infrastructure and selling off rail corridors, yet that is happening in New South Wales. In Newcastle there is a proposal by local property developers to rip up the Newcastle passenger rail line that extends into the heart of the city. It would be outrageous if the federal government considered financing this proposal in any way. How would that sit with their commitment to sustainable cities? What little rail investment there is in New South Wales at the moment is largely limited to improving north to south freight rail services. This investment is worth while, but again it is a fraction of the reinvestment in roads. There is no money for restoring regional passenger rail services and rural branch lines, and only limited funds for piecemeal rail infrastructure spending on Sydney's ailing CityRail network. The federal funding to finish the Chatswood to Parramatta rail link and the Southern Sydney Freight Line is welcome but we need to acknowledge it needs to be much more extensive.
How can the federal government help get public transport moving again in New South Wales? In May this year the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, released a national urban planning policy aimed at improving infrastructure planning in Australian cities. It is a worthwhile initiative; a national approach to planning our cities is long overdue. I commend the government for its goals of productivity, sustainability, liveability and good governance. As part of this reform process every state and territory is required to put in place by 1 January 2012 strategic planning systems for the capital cities. They must meet nine criteria that ensure effective, coordinated long-term planning is embedded right throughout the government process. This is going to be a tall order for New South Wales. Sydney is beset with long-term transport planning failures for its nationally significant economic infrastructure such as transport corridors, airports and ports, freight and intermodal connections.
The federal government has some good ideas, but they are not backing up these ideas with money. New South Wales needs so much more than pilot projects, spot upgrades and feasibility studies. Solving the transport crisis will require massive investment in rail and public transport. The federal transport minister, Mr Albanese, needs to become a stronger and more consistent voice for the public transport needs of New South Wales. The former New South Wales Labor government let us down by failing to win federal infrastructure money for vital public rail transport services in the previous rounds of National Building Program funding. We cannot afford to rely on the current New South Wales coalition government to prioritise regional rail and public transport. No wonder confidence in the government to deliver on public transport is at an all-time low. Minister Albanese needs to advance key transport projects for Sydney.
There is on the transport minister's doorstep one fast and affordable solution that the Greens are backing—light rail. Sydney has a small light rail line that runs from the city to Lilyfield in the inner west. The recent decision by the New South Wales government to extend the light rail to Dulwich Hill was a win for the community after a strong, long-running campaign by EcoTransit that was backed by the community and the Greens. In the 1940s Sydney trams carried upwards of 400 million passengers using one of the largest street based tramway systems in the world. Today Sydney's bus system carries fewer than half that number of passengers.
The Greens support a Sydney light rail network to reduce the need for inner Sydney residents to own private cars. Senator Scott Ludlam came to Sydney last year to launch the Greens' light rail plan for Sydney. The Greens report, Light Rail in Australia: Get on Board outlines the benefits, viability, costs and funding sources for light rail infrastructure in all Australian cities. It is an ambitious plan to resurrect light rail in Sydney, following the lead of more than 100 international cities where light rail has made a comeback over the last decade. New South Wales Greens MP Jamie Parker is working hard for the people in his electorate of Balmain and in Sydney's inner west to promote the benefits of expanding light rail services. Studies show that light rail attracts business, is loved by residents, is relatively fast and inexpensive to build, and when integrated with other forms of public transport would quickly get people out of their cars.
Some people felt hopeful that the new Liberal-Nationals government in New South Wales would fix our transport problems, thinking that they could not be worse than Labor. Six months into their term, what have they done? After years of talking up their green transport credentials, they have axed the GreenWay pedestrian-cycleway project, and a light rail feasibility study is all that is left.
With so much at stake for New South Wales, in the coming months I will be watching closely responses to the federal government's National Urban Policy and federal support for rail and public transport infrastructure projects in New South Wales. I will be working with communities to build support for federal investment expanding light rail in inner Sydney, filling the rail transport gaps in outer Sydney and restoring and expanding rural rail lines and services.