22 September 2022

Hang on, Canberra, we could be headed for another light rail election

| Ian Bushnell
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Mark Parton

Canberra Liberals transport spokesperson Mark Parton: Is he ready to dump light rail? Photo: Region.

Senator David Pocock set the cat among the pigeons this week on light rail, openly questioning the ACT Government’s key public transport strategy and suggesting that federal money could go to more worthy projects in Canberra.

The Senator has been hearing a lot of anti-light rail talk as he makes his way around Canberra on his town hall tour. In a time of tight budgets, it also suits his agenda to keep the spotlight on his pet project – the combined stadium and convention centre.

His fresh positioning on light rail will only embolden community elements which have always opposed the project, or gone cold on the idea because of the emergence of so-called alternative technologies, or become disenchanted by the long lead time for the next phase to Woden to actually get going.

READ MORE Pocock power play calls for light rail rethink, questions infrastructure priorities

The start of traffic and parking disruptions from last weekend for preliminary works for the raising of London Circuit may also be bringing into focus the full horror of years of disruptions ahead.

Light rail has generally been considered a winner with the public but if community resolve is wavering about extending it to Woden and then other areas, the government has only itself to blame.

The fuzzy timeline, the Auditor-General’s concerns about the cost-benefit balance and the planning delays are testing Canberrans’ patience.

Yes, the pandemic impacts have made a mess of projections for many infrastructure and building projects, but the situation still points to a lack of capability in the ACT public service, and the National Capital Authority for that matter, to deliver big developments. (The Canberra Hospital expansion, for example, is underway, but it took a long time to hear the starter’s gun.)

Callam St transport interchange

The Woden Interchange: Some are questioning whether light rail will ever get there. Photo: ACT Government.

The new Labor Federal Government may be sympathetic but nothing is set in stone and the potential for political brinkmanship to achieve an end should not be underestimated, particularly given the importance of Senator Pocock’s vote in the Senate.

There is still appetite for light rail – Belconnen residents reckon it should come to them sooner rather than later – but people are losing confidence.

That is something the Canberra Liberals – never really convinced about light rail’s merits or popularity despite election loss after election loss – are picking up on.

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Transport spokesperson Mark Parton has been prosecuting the case for greater transparency and certainty from the government, echoing concerns about the cost and whether the project actually stacks up.

He was about to make a major announcement on the issue when the Queen’s death intervened.

We will know more in coming weeks apparently but it appears the Liberals may be ready to dump light rail, although it is more likely that they will straddle the fence and attempt to attract votes from both sides.

It may be too late to stop the extension to Commonwealth Park, given that by the time the election rolls around in October 2024, the London Circuit works may be complete and the stage set for the laying of track. But Stage 2B across the lake to Woden may literally be a bridge too far for the Liberals.

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Complicating the political landscape is the possible emergence of anti-light rail community independents, perhaps even aligned with Senator Pocock, who may be a wild card in the 2024 poll.

The government has won three elections with light rail as a central plank and has always been happy to go into the next trumpeting its virtues.

But it could face a more volatile political dynamic in 2024.

Transport Minister Chris Steel needs to restore confidence in the project if it doesn’t want it to be an election liability instead of the winner it has been.

We need to see progress in the glacial approvals process and contract negotiations, some evidence that the next stage of light rail is not stuck on the planning siding for an indefinite period, and that future stages are not so far off to be just a mirage on the horizon.

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Well Russell Tibballs, you have got me started again. I am still waiting on opposition Transport spokesman Mark Parton to release his party’s transport plans. Labor and the Greens have provided voters (over the past three elections) a vision for the future of public transport in Canberra and the Canberra Liberals have failed to do so. This is despite all of the whingeing and criticisms the government has endured. Mr Bushell promised us a major announcement from Mr Parton on his party’s transport plans a couple of weeks ago. The Queen’s death stymied the announcement and Mr Parton took a break, choofing off to WA to see his mum. Mr Parton and the Canberra Liberals have had ample opportunity to provide the party’s transport plans into the future. Where are they and why isn’t the media pursuing this?

Russell Tibballs3:36 pm 14 Oct 22

Owning a car is about $10000 pa according to savings.com.au. So if 25,000 people stop owning cars that is probably $150,000,000 (assume they still spend $4000 pa to get around). that these people can spend elsewhere. Ideally, in a city, you shouldn’t need a car. Cars are a luxury and a pain. With parking – I currently pay at least $11 per day if I don’t need to go anywhere which I often do.

Canberra was designed with a rail system. It should have one.

More power to Parton. You sometimes need a person without a filter to say the emperor has no clothes.

Continuing with the light rail could just mean falling prey to the sunk costs fallacy. Why bang our heads against the fiscal wall? Why continue to pay the rates (and speeding fines) to finance this disaster? It may be better for Canberra in the long run to abandon the whole project, sell as much of the infrastructure off and move to electric buses.

HiddenDragon9:27 pm 23 Sep 22

Earlier this week, we had the Chalmers-Gallagher double act foreshadowing a “conversation” (such a wonderfully threatening euphemism) with the Australian people about the pressures on the federal budget – with the fairly obvious implication that there will be higher taxes and fewer lurks, perks and rorts (of the LNP variety, anyway) at the federal level in coming years.

Just like the federal budget, the ACT budget is under serious medium and longer term pressure due to the costs of major programs such as health rising at a faster rate than revenues can realistically be expected to rise.

The problem for the ACT is that we have already had our budget “conversation”. That happened a decade ago, when the rates/stamp duty trade-off was lifted from the Henry Report as a cunning means of locking in windfall stamp duty revenues in the ACT budget. All of that money has been spent and committed, we now have a large debt to service in a world where super-low interest rates are looking like a thing of the past, and the thought of taxes ratcheting substantially higher than currently projected is more than many Canberra households and businesses could bear.

With this reality as a background, the ACT Liberals should have a “conversation” with Canberrans about choices and the financial costs of those choices – not just the claimed benefits. Any alternative to the government’s light rail plans should be framed in that way, as should any thought of supporting a stadium/convention centre as a spending alternative to those plans.

David Rowlands7:08 pm 23 Sep 22

I should like to see light rail press ahead with all speed, even though I (like Parton) live in the southern Tuggeranong. It will have to be done and it were better done sooner than later. Moreover, I’d like to see a spur to the airport through the Defence precinct built soon.

Tom Worthington4:09 pm 23 Sep 22

The ACT Government could follow the example of Brisbane, which has taken delivery of their first battery powered double articulated bus. With streamlined covers over the wheels, they look like trams. But the battery busses don’t need rails, or overhead wires, able to run on existing roads, and bridges.

That’s not quite true. What Brisbane has brought cannot run on exiting roads as they are too wide and dedicated roadway and bridges has been built for it.

They can of course use the existing busway network which btw is why this was sensible for Brisbane as they already had an extensive busway network. But greenfields it’s a waste of time.

thoughtsonthesubject2:49 pm 23 Sep 22

The light rail has only won elections because the Labor/Greens government ran and is still running a very sophisticated advertising campaign – at taxpayers’ expense, of course. This includes never coming clean on the costs – while draining the budgets of and running down essential public services – and using half-truths if not outright false statements in their promotional literature. For instance, it is claimed that “The ACT Government is building light rail to Woden to help make Canberra a more connected, sustainable, and vibrant city.” Anybody using public transport knows that it is not the light rail but the rapid buses that connect the various parts of Canberra, where you can remain on the same seat travelling from Tuggeranong via Woden, Civic and Canberra University to Belconnen. Even if the light rail were to get to Tuggeranong and Belconnen one day, taking twice as long as rapid buses, who would want to use it? And e-buses are more sustainable than the light rail, for they don’t create the massive amounts of C02 produced on laying the tracks and shipping in trams from half-way around the world. The truth is that light rail is the tool for urban densification – an absurd policy at a time when the greatest threat to city dwellers already now and increasingly in the years to come is the Urban Heat Island effect, claiming lives far beyond what is reported, as the CSIRO in its recent report “Our Future World” has pointed out.

Not long now1:56 pm 23 Sep 22

Parton is a fool, always been a fool. Like the rest of the ACT LP, he offers no suitable alternative, just more of the same hot air with nothing to offer Canberrans that would change their votes.

He should go back to WA now, and find some other pursuit, its certainly not politics or governing.

Well Not long now your wish has been granted!! A look at Mark Parton’s Facebook reveals he has gone back to WA today. He should be with mum now in Li’l old York. Only for a few days though. Lucky Mum!

ChrisinTurner1:50 pm 23 Sep 22

The sad thing about Light Rail is we only got them because the ACT Greens originally believed only trams can run on electricity. Technology has now proved that battery electric buses are the future. Even the buses called trackless trams are battery electric. Time for a rethink by the Greens.

Battery buses play a part in the future. But they are not the sole player in the future. Light rail is still going strong and expanding world wide. Just like electric bus fleets are expanding too.

LR Gungahlin to the City has only been “popular”, because of the road congestion on Northbourne and the 60kph speed limits.
When you remove the bus routes, people have no choice but to use it and when you sequence the traffic lights to enable LR priority, it works.

The same can’t be said for Woden to the City (or Tuggers to the City). With LR limited to 70kph and minimal traffic lights, as a form of public transport, LR is a poor option. People want to get to their destination quickly and a bus travelling at 80kph wins every day of the week.

Between now and the election, punters will go very cold on LR due to the years of traffic bedlam construction will cause.

That said, LR to Woden will get built:

1. There is no point doing 2A, without going to Woden. If the project was terminated after 2A, a bus interchange would need to be built at the Floriade carpark, so commuters could connect to the service. Otherwise, 2A would only be a once-a-year shuttle to Floriade.

2. While the Government hasn’t really nailed down how it’s getting over the lake, it’s already started building new Bus/LR infrastructure at Woden.

3. Elections are never about one issue. There is no LR mandate, despite what some pro-LR folk claim. While the ALP only holds one more seat than the Libs, their alliance with the Greens will ensure they are re-elected, regardless of individual policies.

All good points. How they propose to get across the lake is critical, seeing as it hasn’t been approved or costed. And the numbers already don’t add up! Connecting Belconnen makes more and cheaper sense, connecting to the airport will also be expensive. Agree that there has never been a LR mandate, just a long-term absence of credible alternatives in local elections.

Northborne Ave is less congested now than before light rail was built. And few from Gungahlin had direct buses anyway with many changing for overloaded and delayed 200 buses in the town centre.

Well folks we’ve only been waiting for 6 years on opposition Transport spokesman Mark Parton to release his party’s transport plans. Mr Bushell, only a few days ago, got me all tingly and excited by revealing that Mr Parton will be making a major announcement shortly. But lo and behold, the Queen died and the announcement has been put on hold!!! Thank God the Canberra Liberals aren’t in government. If Labor was working as slow as them we would be going backwards!

What we actually need to see is a robust consideration of the project, the alternatives and the timeline.

This article is just another in a long line of Bushnell ignoring what makes a good infrastructure project because “shiny new thing” must be good.

Light Rail is the poster boy for how bad this government’s performance is and how woeful the opposition are for not being able to adequately hold them to account.

Labor is clearly prevaricating due to their knowledge that the project is unaffordable, yet it’s become almost like a religious article of faith around “Progressive” politics. Hopefully smarter and cooler heads prevail from this massive white elephant.

Bring it on – elect the clowns out…..

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