SMH: WestConnex: the road to ruin is paved with more roads. Elizabeth Farrelly (January 29, 2015)
Wherever you look it seems the boofheads are back in charge. And I don’t just mean Abbott’s bizarre elevation of militarists and monarchs. (Defenders of Sir Prince are conspicuously absent, yet I should point out in his defence that his single spoken syllable in my presence thoroughly befits an Aussie knight, being an imperative, “beer!”)
No, I mean the diehard collusion of coal, cars and climate denial jack-booting up and down our land. But what saves boofhead culture – or rather, what sometimes saves us from it – is its incompetence. Here the WestConnex debacle offers a textbook case.
I’ve always felt ridiculously proud that Sydney survived, roughly intact, the 20th century motorway mania that sent so many cities spiralling into self-destruction. It wasn’t for lack of wishing. NSW road engineers would have levelled most of Glebe, Chippendale, Newtown, Redfern and Paddington, but for a serendipitous mix of government incompetence and hippie heritage awareness.
The death of Tom Uren highlights this piece of historical luck. The engineers had yearned to build motorways since the 1940s but the enabling plan, red-striping our inner-city like so much prime beef, wasn’t gazetted until 1971. By then it was too late. The Whitlam era was already in the wind, with Uren expounding the urbanism that would value cities as places, not just thoroughfares. The inner city was saved.
Since then, we’ve watched these same inner-city neighbourhoods flower into the creative hubs that drive the city economy. This makes motorway-madness even starker. Many of Sydney’s peer cities across the globe see motorways now as things to demolish, not build, blights on community, drivers of climate change, exacerbators of congestion.
So when WestConnex popped up in 2012, it looked like the decades-late death-rattle of red-striped engineer-think. Greiner’s folly. No one really believed they would be daft enough to do it.
It’s not like we have the money – $12 billion (in 2012 dollars) for a dying technology? It was widely assumed that the flurry of hasty announcements would end, Utopia-like, in a soft wet fizzle.
But no. The project lives. Now, as St Peters residents choke on compulsory acquisition orders that will raze dozens of homes from their sweet and funky neighbourhood and Newtown gears up to save the soul of King Street, it seems the fat lady of motorway madness may sing in Sydney yet.
NSW already had more land-use portfolios than it could manage: transport, roads and planning, all in separate fiefdoms. But the O’Farrell government wanted more. It set up Infrastructure NSW, a majority private-sector body headed by Nick Greiner (and including, incidentally, three ACs, an OAM and an AO, but as yet no knight), to advise the premier directly. Three years of boofhead daffiness followed.
The project is a massive U-shaped road over half of metro-Sydney. It will widen the M4 (generating massive new tolls, estimated by the NSW Greens to be up to $26). It will duplicate the M5 (destroying homes and villages) and tunnel crazily under the city, connecting a second harbour tunnel funded by the sale of electricity “poles and wires”. The first two parts are scheduled to be completed in 2019, the third four years later in 2023.
The second, M5 stage is the most intensely controversial. Here, tenderers have been shortlisted, homes slated for demolition and a new six-lane tunnel exit posited, disgorging at St Peters-Newtown. On King Street, 24-hour clearways will destroy one of the finest retail streets in Sydney. Yet the Environmental Impact Statement isn’t due for nine months or more. How can this even be legal?
That’s the boofhead bit. As to the daffiness? Read on. On October 2, 2012, says a damning NSW Auditor-General’s report (released, naturally, just before Christmas), the government considered Infrastructure NSW’s WestConnex concept paper. The next day, October 3, it committed publicly to the project.
The Auditor-General’s report is peppered with words like “deficient” and “falls short of”. In particular, it notes Infrastructure NSW’s failure to implement the government’s protocols requiring independent, regular “gateway” reviews. There should have been six. In fact, there was one, early on and unsatisfactory at best.
This review was rushed and incomplete. (It did not, for example, have access to the financial plan). So it put up five red flags (including project delivery, governance and value for money) and four yellow (including risk management and sustainability). There were no green flags.
The process of addressing these concerns, the Auditor-General says, was compromised, narrow and inexpert. And that was the good part. The rest of the assessment process, for this biggest road project ever, shaping our city and finances for generations, was even shabbier.
There is a lot you could do with $12 billion. A mere $5 billion, EcoTransit Sydney says, would buy us a world-class public transport system, or something close to it – so that no one in the entire metropolis lived more than 10 minutes walk from a light rail, train or (frequent, rapid, accessible) bus stop. If, then, you could give the lot free wi-fi, incentivisation would rocket, productivity losses plummet.
Instead of just taking trucks off local roads, as WestConnex boasts, you would lose them from roads altogether. Instead of a $26 tollway, you would have a breezy ride in a moving office to a clean, airy future.
But WestConnex is ideological. That’s why Duncan Gay declares himself determined, despite the gaping holes. There appears to be a deep emotional resistance to public transport, a deep love of dirty, noisy mechanical road culture. Eighteen months ago, when I asked Infrastructure NSW’s chief executive Paul Broad “why does WestConnex include no public transport?” I received no answer, just a furious 20-minute tirade. Anger hides fear.
Emotion has no business driving such a project. Boofhead culture guises itself as science, but is actually ideology. Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi is right. A proper inquiry is called for, as it would be were this $12 billion – or even $1 billion – for the arts. We need to see that WestConnex business case, now, before they start knocking down houses.