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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.