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Video: Gavin Gatenby & David Kirby on WestConnex & history repeating

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The Fifth Estate: Video: Gavin Gatenby & David Kirby on WestConnex & history repeating (2 July 2015)

In the late 1970s in Sydney it was the South-West freeway, now the M5, that drew heavy opposition.

Today it’s the WestConnex, but as far as EcoTransit Sydney’s Gavin Gatenby is concerned the fundamentals have not changed.

Gatenby, no stranger to agitation on behalf of more equitable and sustainable outcomes, has interviewed former NSW Supreme Court judge David Kirby, who conducted a thorough review of radial freeways on behalf of the NSW government at the time, starting in 1979.

Kirby’s conclusion, unsurprisingly, was that radial freeways should be avoided.

Today as the pressure grows for the government to drop the planned WestConnex in Sydney, Gatenby says there are plenty of lessons to be learnt fro the past that should inform our decision making.

According to Gatenby, Kirby took a “long objective look at the whole issue of radial freeways”. His investigations drew on evidence from the Department of Main Roads as it then was and experts including Professor Ross Blunden, the founding professor of traffic engineering at UNSW renowned for masterminding major operations and movements of troops during World War II for the Allies.

“Kirby concluded that radial freeways were in general a phenomena you should avoid and that was off the back of the American experience at that stage,” Gatenby told The Fifth Estate.

Kirby said radial freeways caused cities to sprawl, you would get a whole bunch of low density housing on the outskirts and you would destroy inner city areas (that would be cut off from each other).

By that stage, Gatenby says, there was a “whole amount of experience in the US” .

DMR experts such as Ken Dobinson had also investigated the US and “couldn’t help but notice that Miami in 2000 was hugely congested, even though it had got its freeways in place”.

One part of Kirby’s brief at the time was to look at the emerging port at Port Botany, to where shipping had moved from Sydney Harbour. He advised that shipping containers destined for the west of Sydney could be slated for rail freight and those for the east to go by road.

“Kirby crafted a solution that divided Sydney into western and eastern zones so that any containers going to the western zone should go by rail and anything to the east by road.

“Putting together this deal was a hell of a trial,” Gatenby says. “It involved crafting something acceptable to the shipping industry, the trucking industry and three unions, and he put together an excellent scheme that would have seen 41 per cent of containers out of Port Botany go by rail.”

This figure would have jumped with Sydney’s huge western expansion.

What happened next probably goes to the heart of what goes wrong in infrastructure planning in this state and no doubt many others. In both cases, there is first much congratulations with rational answers and plans, then comes the backlash from vested interests, who ignore the greater good, and push forward with their own agenda.

“The Ministry of Transport torpedoed the agreement and almost incited the transport workers to go on strike,” Gatenby says. “The Wran government, which had received the recommendations very warmly, then backed away.”