New South Wales Premier Mike Baird’s promise to build the M5 motorway tunnel across traffic-congested southern Sydney is a signature item in his campaign for re-election next March. So why sneak it out on Melbourne Cup day?

The “race that stops the nation” is normally the time for governments to bury nasty reports and potentially damaging stories and pray they get lost amid Cup fever. So it was surprising that Baird, standing alongside Prime Minister Tony Abbott, unveiled the M5 tunnel project just a few hours before Protectionist stormed home at Flemington.

Why try to bury a good news story?

In fact, it wasn’t a media event at all; it was a stage-managed campaign advertising shoot arranged to gather footage of the Premier and the PM promoting infrastructure in Australia’s largest city.

Details of the project were avoided at the “press conference” and they remain scarce. No timeline for the completion of the project, just estimates. No final cost, just ballpark numbers. No contractor to undertake the construction, just hopefuls. No price for the tolls to be charged, just guesses.

The question has to be asked: is the much-vaunted nine-kilometre M5 motorway tunnel a substantial and innovative transport project or part of a cobbled-together, hugely expensive re-election strategy?

The project’s future has been handed to a faceless bureaucratic instrument called the WestConnex Delivery Authority, comprising handpicked businessmen from the private sector. They include:

  • Tony Shepherd — president of the Business Council of Australia, who chaired Abbott’s Commission of Audit which was used as a pretext for saying the nation was broke and paved the way for Treasurer Joe Hockey’s “horror” budget.
  • Peter Brecht — president of the Australian Constructors Association, and former managing director of Lend Lease and Abigroup.
  • Rod Pearse — former managing director of Boral Construction Materials Group and chairman of Fife Capital Funds.
  • Robert Hamilton — director of the NSW government’s infrastructure body, UrbanGrowth NSW, and a co-founder of the Mirvac Group.
  • David Stewart — Secretary of Transport for NSW, and formerly executive director of Project Queensland.
  • Peter Duncan — chief executive of Roads and Maritime Services in NSW and former chief executive of Centennial Park and Moore Park trust.
  • Simon Smith — deputy secretary of the productivity and sustainability group with Baird’s Department of Premier and Cabinet.

A senior transport executive told Crikey:

“The M5 tunnels proposal announced this week is vague and uncosted. There is no money for public transport but buckets of it for developers and construction contractors.

“Where is the bold strategy for the future of Sydney transport? In a week when we have all heard about the late Gough Whitlam’s visionary policies which modernised Australia, the M5 announcement is symptomatic of today’s Liberals: they are looking backwards and not forwards.”

One critical issue not being considered in the city’s tunnel projects — the M5 from the existing M7 at Kingsgrove to St Peters, and the NorthConnex linking the M2 Motorway to the M1 Pacific Highway — is air quality.

Modern-day motorway tunnels in world capitals such as Tokyo maintain clean air inside tunnels and clean up emissions from them. But Australia’s private infrastructure contractors are reluctant to build effective air ventilation systems because they eat into profits. Their impulse is to complete them on the cheap.

Big cities have ended up with tunnels filled with choking exhaust fumes while families living in homes adjacent to tunnels have reported extreme health hazards.

In their rush to win votes, the infrastructure Premier and the infrastructure Prime Minister are inflicting ill-conceived toll projects on big city dwellers. Surely there’s another way?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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