There is light at the start of tunnel this afternoon in Sydney, when the Prime Minister Julia Gillard anoints for the media the already unofficially announced future completion of the Chatswood-Parramatta suburban rail line, which state Labor stopped dead at Epping seven years ago under the anti-rail policies of former NSW Transport Minister Michael Costa.
The restoration of the project also means that light is at last illuminating the almost invisible attempts by former media star Maxine McKew to hang on to Bennelong, the seat she took off the former Prime Minister, John Howard, in 2007 after which she disappeared from public life until former tennis great John Alexander won the Liberal candidacy and began running her all around the court.
This fascinating match aside, this announcement is a huge electoral plus for Labor, as completing the rail link (by 2017 after a new start in 2014) can notably improve directly and indirectly the lives of all rail commuters in the western half of Sydney including the Blue Mountains towns.
It is also a symbolic, one might hope lasting, breaking of at least 80 years of disgraceful mismanagement of public transport planning and project delivery in NSW.
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The cost to the state will be half a billion dollars, or about as much as current Premier Kristina Keneally blew on the cancelled Sydney metro project that she never accurately nor transparently accounted for in its dying months. It is significant that in the official announcement by Transport and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, the wording makes it clear NSW is ceding its powers of control and direction of the completion of the Chatswood-Parramatta link to Infrastructure Australia, which will provide the other $2.1 billion in funding.
NSW, no matter what the government, cannot be trusted with infrastructure dollars, as the mal-administration of transport projects is hard-wired into the state’s public service as much as it is into its politics.
This is a project with potential. At Westmead, where the tunnels will emerge from the new underground platforms at Parramatta, studies have already identified a lower-cost route through the poorly served newer western housing estates of Sydney to Leppington, and the existing Chatswood or eastern end of the line begs to be part of an extension that could become a much needed second Sydney Harbour rail crossing.
The pre-media event statement contains darkness as well as light.
“Federal Labor will also have Infrastructure Australia work with the NSW Government to explore private financing options for the M5 East widening and the F3 to M2 upgrade.”
But recent private public ventures, three of them financial basket cases in the Lane Cove Tunnel, the Cross City Tunnel and the Airport Link rail line, involved the sacrifice of hundreds of millions of up-front incentive dollars by the NSW government, and in the case of the road projects, dishonest traffic predictions that were accompanied by street closures that massively dislocated public and private transport users until, in part, they were undone.
Private public partnerships in transport projects have in the past two decades morphed into financial engineering ventures in which claims have been made that well over 70% of toll revenues have been syphoned into fees and dividends rather than the repayment of capital costs. The biggest bank or finance fee paid by many Sydneysiders today is hidden in the electronic tolls they rack up twice or more times each working day.
The results has been some of the highest road tolls in the world, and on the Airport Rail link, fare loadings on the four underground stations that were built for it are so high, they price them out of reach for many travellers and 25,000 commuters whose jobs are airport related, or located near the stations.
Former NSW auditor Tony Harris often pointed out that for about one fifth the project cost of some private public partnerships, the state could have built them, and charged a much lower toll, and repaid the capital costs in a similar or shorter period.
The engagement of private equity in future infrastructure projects is going to need a lot more than a good news pre-election announcement to dispel this darkness that obscures banks ripping off the public purse as so-called partners in much-needed new rail and road developments.