The Canberra Liberals have decided it’s time to climb on board light rail, now that Stage 1 is up and running and has been embraced by northside commuters.
Opposition Leader Alistair Coe signalled a significant shift in the party’s position on light rail in an interview with the ABC in which he backed, in principle, light rail’s extension not just to Woden but other centres in the ACT.
But he questioned whether the Government was still committed to Stage 2 in the wake of the federal election loss and the evaporation of Bill Shorten’s $200 million pledge to light rail and the infrastructure cooperation promised by a Federal Labor government.
“It seems now Stage 2 is on the backburner and they’re more interested in the stadium. A few years ago they were more interested in the convention centre. We also heard a few years ago they’re more interested in a new theatre. What is actually the intention of the Government in regards to Stage 2?” Mr Coe said.
Accepting the reality of Stage 1, Mr Coe said a government should be looking at taking light rail elsewhere but criticised the lack of information on which to base any decisions.
“There is no business plan, we don’t know what it’s going to cost, they haven’t released anything about the engineering of this project,” he said.
“As a principle, the idea, given we’ve already got light rail, of having an expanded network I support.”
Mr Coe said Woden should be a destination but also Belconnen, the airport and eventually going all the way to Tuggeranong.
“We should look at this in a very strategic way, absolutely it does need to be analysed but you can’t make a decision on a whim, especially from Opposition, not being privy to the engineering studies, not being privy to a business case, it makes it very hard for me or anyone in Canberra to make an informed decision about something that could cost a couple of billion dollars,” he said.
He acknowledged this was a change in the Liberals’ stance on light rail, if qualified.
“Stage 1 has happened, that’s a fairly significant change to the ACT. Of course we were sceptical about Stage 1, we were sceptical about the cost, sceptical about the impact it would have on the bus network,” he said. “Stage 1 is here, are we going to leave the light rail network as they call it to be a 12-kilometre line or are we trying to actually connect town centres and try to make it service the entire city?
“As a principle that’s what it should do now that we have it but you’ve got to make these decisions strategically and you’ve got to do it with all the stats and figures.”
Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, Damien Haas welcomed Mr Coe’s comments as a positive move but said the public needed to hear more from the Canberra Liberals about public transport ahead of next year’s elections.
“It’s a year out from the 2020 Assembly elections and the Canberra public are yet to hear any public transport policies from the Canberra Liberals – except that they want more school buses,” he said. “We need to hear more from the alternative government on their long term public transport policies and plans, and how they see light rail as a future of that, or if they will leave stage one as the sole light rail service in the ACT, if they are elected.”
He said the cost won’t be known until the business case is released but he was concerned that the Liberals did not understand the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangements that financed Stage 1 and will do the same for subsequent stages.
“Future light rail stages will almost certainly be financed in a similar way to Stage one – with twenty-year PPP arrangements. That shifts the borrowing and debt from ACT residents to a consortium – with the ACT Government obligation limited to annual payments for the duration of the contract,” Mr Haas said.
“The Canberra Liberals’ previous form on public discussion about light rail cost indicates that they don’t really understand the way a PPP works, or the impact of light rail on the ACT Budget. It’s a very small percentage of Territory finances and produces an incredible return. It’s a city-changing investment.”
Despite Mr Coe’s comments, Mr Haas does not see a new era of bipartisanship on public transport, calling them begrudging acceptance of a reality at best.
“Bi-partisan support would include public support for light rail stage two, and taking part in the future discussions on the way the route will serve the communities adjacent to it, for example, do they have a view about where light rail stops could be located? They have been silent on many of these issues, and they need to let the community know what their views are,” he said.
He rejected Mr Coe’s doubts about the Government’s commitment to Stage 2, saying the timetable for Woden light rail still looked similar to the timetable for Stage 1, and the PTCBR expected Stage 2 operations to begin in 2025 or before.
He said the holdups to date had been due to the parliamentary inquiry and inconsistent NCA stances on routes, technologies and Commonwealth Avenue Bridge.
“I’m advised the Transport Canberra and NCA public servants have been working away on the environment and heritage reports needed so the route can be approved, and the business case finalised. I’ve seen no signs the Government is wavering.”
Transport Minister Meegan Fitzharris reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to Stage 2, saying there was money in the Budget for planning and design work and to redevelop Woden Bus Interchange to ensure the project kept moving ahead while route design and approvals were finalised.
“We will soon refer the Stage 2 project for assessment under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – a key step to clarifying heritage and environment considerations for the project and involving the community and stakeholders in a detailed understanding of the project through formal consultation,” she said.
But Ms Fitzharris did not say when the business case would be ready.
She questioned Mr Coe’s sincerity, saying he had been the biggest opponent to light rail in this city for years. “He opposed it as Shadow Minister for Transport. He said he would tear up contracts. So why should we believe him now?”