Too little too late? … Barry O’Farrell and Duncan Gay announce the work to start on the M5.If Barry O’Farrell and his ministers had arrived from Mars, never having seen Planet Earth, Australia, or the city of Sydney until March 2011, the transport plan they announced this week might be considered a reasonable first crack at conceptualising the needs of this city and state.
But they did not and it is not. The draft transport master plan, released on Tuesday, was billed as a fresh direction for transport policy in Sydney and NSW over the next 20 years. But the plan offered little detail, and it’s defining feature was a loose commitment to a number of motorway schemes.
The lack of detail is frustrating and inadequate, and it is also an issue on which the Herald has an institutional position. In 2009, fed up with the inability of the previous administration to chart and stick to an agenda on Sydney’s transport needs, the paper commissioned its own inquiry.
The inquiry’s resulting plan asked, and tried to resolve, many of the questions the O’Farrell plan either ignores or sidesteps.
These questions still need answering.
WILL THE MOTORWAYS REDUCE CONGESTION?
There are two issues here. Are more motorways in Sydney a good idea? And will they go to the right areas?
More people drive in Sydney than use public transport. Almost 70 per cent of trips in Sydney are by car, and the percentage is higher in the Illawarra and Newcastle. The city needs good roads.
And if the O’Farrell government’s plan is to be believed, there will be a lot more of them built in the next 20 years.
Another M5 tunnel will link the south-west suburbs to the airport, making the M5 East an eight-lane motorway. The M4, which stops at Strathfield, will cut through the inner west to either Camperdown or the Anzac Bridge, and then in a tunnel down to the airport.
In the north, the F3 will be extended under Pennant Hills Road to meet the M2, and the unbuilt F6 will course through the Sutherland Shire and the southern suburbs to meet up with the airport and eventually the CBD.
There might also be new motorways from the M2 at Lane Cove to the M4 extension at Camperdown and down to the east of the airport.
In other words, most of these motorways will ostensibly make it much easier to drive to the centre of Sydney and the busy area around the airport.
”In most major North American cities, as in Europe, the idea of a new radial urban freeway towards the CBD would be met with near-universal ridicule,” said one transport planner, who is still working for the government and therefore does not want to be named.
”These freeways simply encourage vehicles to enter the inner city at a rate faster than city streets can absorb that traffic,” the planner said.
Where will the cars go once the motorways have deposited them in the inner city? Where will the new M4 traffic go once it gets to Camperdown or the Anzac Bridge? And where will
the traffic on the M6 motorway head once it gets to St Peters? The draft transport master plan is silent on these questions.
”Look at the number of people parking around Waterfall and Sutherland and catching trains into the city,” a former chief executive of the Roads and Traffic Authority, speaking anonymously, said this week.
”If you extend the F6 they will just use their cars – but what do you do with the cars when they get to areas with heavy traffic?”
Then there is the principle of induced traffic growth, or the idea that in a congested city like Sydney new motorways will fill up as soon as they are built.
When the M4 was widened from Mays Hill to Prospect in 1994, for instance, traffic volumes jumped 20 per cent in a year. Fewer people used public transport. When the M5 East opened, patronage on the East Hills line dropped 10 per cent.
On the other hand, when Sydney’s trains were in a state of perpetual chaos between 2003 and 2005, travel times on major roads got worse.
The government’s plan asserts its motorway proposals are the solution to Sydney’s transport gridlock. The Herald’s inquiry argued: ”Just building more roads does not reduce traffic congestion.”
WHAT SHOULD WE PAY FOR PUBLIC TRANSPORT?
If you want to get from Rouse Hill to Central on public transport, the quickest way is not the direct bus. The quickest way is to take a bus on the T-Way to Westmead, and then to change to a direct train. In the morning peak, this could save almost half an hour.
But unless you have a MyMulti transport ticket, this route would also cost an extra $3.
The extra cost is because of the antiquated manner in which Sydney’s transport fares are set, which penalises people for hopping off one mode of transport and onto another, or even from one bus to another.
Try another example from the inner west. If you want to get from Earlwood to Circular Quay, you could take one 423 bus the whole way.
But on many mornings it would be quicker to get out and change at either Newtown or Marrickville to a train, avoiding the morning crawl down King Street and George Street.
Again, you would need to have a MyMulti weekly ticket or a $21 MyMulti day pass to make the faster route worth your while.
This is not just a question of technology, or the lack of a smart card in Sydney that can be used across buses, trains and ferries.
Sydney’s ill-fated T-Card project collapsed the smart card dream for more than a decade, and the new card, called the Opal, will not be available on all forms of public transport until 2014.
But there is also the question of fares policy. What types of fares will Sydney residents need to pay, even when the Opal card is introduced?
For a well-functioning transport system, the key is not penalising people for getting off one mode of transport – a bus, say – and getting on another – say, a train. There are myriad ways of doing this.
Some cities use flat fares. Some cities use pure distance-based fares, where you are charged per kilometre over the length of your trip. Some cities use zones, where you are charged depending on how many geographical zones you pass through on your journey.
This is a question of policy, not infrastructure – flat fares with time-based caps have worked in other Australian cities since the 1960s.
The Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, has done some good things here. She has allowed MyMulti and Pensioner Excursion holders free use on Sydney’s light rail line.
But what is the broader fares policy of Berejiklian, who has been either the shadow minister or transport minister for the past six years?
Her transport plan says the Opal card will include ”a simpler system, reducing the complexity of existing ticketing types and helping passengers find the best value fares for particular journeys”.
The answer, in other words, is TBA.
HOW WILL EVERYTHING BE FUNDED?
Big question, this. If money were no object, there’s a good chance Sydney would have a pretty decent transport system by now.
But money’s tough.
Tuesday’s plan put the onus on the ability of Berejiklian and her department to reduce recurrent costs in operating Sydney’s public transport system.
It also flagged the possibility of higher charges for CBD parking, distance-based tolling on motorways, heavier levies on big trucks, as well as vague commitments such as ”identifying future funding opportunities” and ”whole-of-Government efficiency improvements”.
It offered no forecast of how much these initiatives could bring in.
The Herald inquiry commissioned research into how much more money the public would be prepared to pay if they were guaranteed a better public transport system. The research found a small majority would be prepared to pay a 38¢ fare increase per trip, a $7.46 congestion charge for driving to the city, a $7.19 per day parking space increase, 8¢ a litre more petrol, and an additional yearly household tax of $157.70.
These levies would bring in almost $900 million a year.
But the key to the idea was absolute transparency about what transport initiatives would be built and when and how much was being spent on them. It also said the priority of public transport projects should be enshrined in legislation.
The draft transport master plan included no precise detail on when initiatives will start, let alone how much they would cost.
WHAT ABOUT TRAINS, FERRIES, BUSES, PLANES?
Sydney’s ferries are on average more than 22 years old, and they will be economically worthless in about two years. When the NSW government privatised the running of Sydney Ferries this year, it also deferred a decision on a new fleet.
Tuesday’s transport plan puts a new fleet in the ”medium to long-term” category.
Most of CountryLink’s XPT trains were bought 30 years ago with a design life of 27 years and 6.25 million kilometres. They have now travelled more than 9.5 million kilometres, and some will start to be unworkable in about four years.
But the only plan for replacing the fleet, despite the fact the government is sitting on detailed reports showing the options, is for a ”Country Passenger Rail Services Strategy”, yet to be developed, to start a ”program to acquire new rolling stock”.
There are similar vague commitments to new bus interchanges in and around the CBD, new intercity trains, and apart from a promise of a new ferry wharf at Barangaroo, similarly vague talk of new ferry wharves in Sydney Harbour.
There is the acknowledgement of the need for major upgrades to at least Wynyard and Town Hall train stations, but nothing about when or how this might occur. Plans for an upgrade of Wynyard station, which is already at capacity, have been in development for years.
And there is nothing on the future long-distance transport needs of the state – either a second Sydney airport or high-speed rail.
O’Farrell says he opposes a second airport in Sydney, but the plan makes no provision for any alternative rail services.
The plan does not even state a preference for where high-speed rail should enter the city.
The O’Farrell government is moving fast on the North West Rail Link. It has conceptually committed to another rail crossing for Sydney Harbour, but not where.
And on a host of other public transport questions it is still to declare its hand.
HOW SHOULD FREIGHT MOVE AROUND?
It is not true to say there is no plan for how to move freight around Sydney and NSW in Tuesday’s report. Because in the absence of any detailed alternative, the plan seems to be accommodating more and larger trucks heading through Sydney and our major roads and highways.
The O’Farrell government continues to claim this is the first transport plan to include freight.
But most of the recommendations about how to manage the movement of goods are recommendations for more plans.
The report calls for regional freight and local port plans, as well as ”better data collection, collation and forecasting”; ”detailed economic analysis”; and more ”road access reform”.
It does make firm a commitment, however, to a trial of B-Triples or road trains on the Hume Highway between Sydney and Melbourne.
And it does talk about a ”Bridges for the Bush” program, to upgrade local roads so they are strong enough to accommodate at least B-Double trucks.
However, as for shifting freight off trucks and onto rail lines, as governments always at least profess to want to do, the only real idea is a plan for a ”Western Sydney Freight line” to take containers by rail to the west.
There is no route mapped out, and the resolve is no stronger than to ”continue to work with the Australian Government to identify further opportunities to advance this corridor and look to protecting the corridor to ensure its viability into the future”.
The O’Farrell government has already said it will remove any restrictions on the number of containers passing through Port Botany as a condition of privatising the Port. Those containers will be heading through Sydney on the road.
There is still time for the O’Farrell government to answer some of these questions and more.
It is taking submissions on the draft transport master plan – go to haveyoursay.nsw.gov.au/transportmasterplan – ahead of a final report in November.
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