Brisbane’s Liberal Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman, may well be nervously watching the headlines in the Sydney papers as that city’s tunnel fiasco lurches from crisis to catastrophe.

The son of Liberal Senator Jocelyn Newman, Campbell has promised to ease Brisbane’s traffic congestion by building a series of tunnels under the city to link the north and south banks of the Brisbane river. The project, known as “TransApex” is slated to begin construction in 2006 with the first 4.7 kilometre link from the Gabba in south Brisbane to direct airport routes in the north, by tunnelling 60 metres under the CBD. According to the Council’s own publicity it is the largest urban road project ever proposed in Australia.

Two bids have been received for the first stage, known as the North-South Bypass Tunnel project, which will be completed on a Build, Own and Operate basis with a construction cost of around $1.3 billion. An announcement on the successful tender is expected in the next few months.

A financial taskforce, led by former Reserve Bank chairman and superannuation spruiker Bernie Fraser reviewed the viability of the tunnel proposal in 2004. After considering the Council’s ability to service debt and estimating a capacity of around 95,000 vehicles per day over a lifespan of 100 years, the taskforce concluded that the project would be financially sound if constructed on a user-pays basis. However, the project website estimates that by 2016 the NSBT will only be carrying 69,000 vehicles per day.

A Queensland Treasury Corporation review released this week has favourably assessed the validity of the Council’s costings, but also highlighted some issues that are still to be resolved. Newman wants state and federal funding to top up the Council’s $450 million borrowing capacity. But so far, he has received no promises of additional financial support from either.

The Lord Mayor has high hopes for the TransApex project which he says will allow Council to “free up” roads on the surface and also reduce “rat running” through Brisbane’s narrow and hilly suburban streets. Perhaps, in the light of what’s happening in Sydney, Campbell should be careful what he wishes for.