Chief Minister Andrew Barr has confirmed that the ACT Government has officially abandoned its preferred Barton dog-leg for light rail Stage 2 and will soon be seeking approval from the Commonwealth for a route to Woden via State Circle in a bid to fast-track the $1.6 billion project.
Mr Barr had flagged the move late last year but he told the Canberra Business Chamber in his State of the Territory address today that the Government would shortly lodge a referral for approval of the State Circle route under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
“One of the steps we will take to expedite the approvals process is to now focus our efforts on a route via State Circle,” he said.
Mr Barr said the National Capital Authority had been clear that the Barton route would struggle to be supported, and that last year’s Parliamentary inquiry also clearly pointed to the State Circle route as an alternative which aligned with the original National Capital Plan and had the best chance of bi-partisan parliamentary support.
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“We are optimistic that this change will mean we can get on with delivering Stage 2 of light rail sooner,” he said.
A game-changer for the project would be the election on 18 May of a Federal Labor government, which has pledged $200 million in its first budget to support Stage 2. The referral to the Commonwealth is likely to be lodged after the election.
Mr Barr said Stage 2 presented a range of challenges absent from Stage 1, particularly securing agreement from the NCA and the Federal Parliament for a route through the Parliamentary Triangle.
“Every major infrastructure project has challenges, and we will work through those with the Australian Government and Parliament because we are determined to deliver this vital transport link,” he said.
“These discussions may also take on a different tenor if there is a change of Government, given federal Labor has shown their strong support for the project by committing $200 million towards it.”
Mr Barr said Stage 2 linking the city to the Woden Town Centre was the logical next step to deliver a north-south spine for the future light rail network.
He said it would make a huge difference for congestion on the main southern approaches to the city, such as Adelaide Avenue, as the Woden region continued to grow.
The Barton dog-leg came under fire from many quarters including the Planning Institute and the Woden Valley Community Council, which preferred a direct route that maintained the integrity of the north-south spine and did not mean longer journeys than Rapid bus services.
Going through Barton would have added 15-20 minutes to a Woden-City journey.
The Government pushed for the Barton route so it could capture patronage from the public service departments, national institutions and other employment centres in the Parliamentary Triangle, and was backed by the Public Transport Association.
But the federal parliamentary committee said in October that going though Barton would require changes to the National Capital Plan, heritage and environmental conditions and light rail vehicles to be wire-free on national land, adding cost and complexity to the project.
Mr Barr has said that a compromise route would still aim to capture as much of that Barton patronage as possible.
Stage 2 will require a crossing over Lake Burley Griffin, with the favoured option being a central bridge between the two carriage ways of Commonwealth Avenue.