22 February 2024

Lee calls on Barr to be upfront about cost of infrastructure plan before election

| Ian Bushnell
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Elizabeth Lee MLA.

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee says the bill for the ACT Government’s infrastructure plan will be at least $8 billion. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee has thrown down the infrastructure gauntlet to Chief Minister Andrew Barr, calling on him to come clean with voters about how much the long list of projects will cost.

Ms Lee said the size of the government’s infrastructure plan in the context of a deteriorating fiscal position revealed in the mid-year Budget Review was alarming.

“With the Territory’s debt to exceed $18 billion in the forward estimates and interest repayments alone to cost Canberrans almost $2 million a day, Canberrans should be asking Andrew Barr how he’s going to pay for all these projects,” she said.

Ms Lee said that despite announcing a number of significant projects to be taken to the election in October, Mr Barr had not told Canberrans how much they would cost and how they would be budgeted and delivered.

With next to no money in the budget for projects such as the construction of light rail stage 2B to Woden, the Canberra Theatre redevelopment, the Northside Hospital, a new stadium, and the convention centre and the music pavilion, Ms Lee estimated that Mr Barr would need to find at least $8 billion to deliver these projects.

Ms Lee said the Canberra Liberals would propose their own infrastructure plan after the June budget was handed down.

“We’ll be upfront with the Canberra public about those costings going through the robust Treasury process as any Opposition should,” she said.

“It will focus on providing the most benefit to Canberrans financially, socially and culturally.”

But light rail to Woden will not be on the Liberals’ list, having already pledged to discontinue plans to extend the network beyond Commonwealth Park.

READ ALSO Release of Integrity Commission CIT contracts probe delayed until April

Ms Lee said the biggest worry was that Canberrans would not be told before the election how much light rail between Commonwealth Park and Woden would cost, which the Canberra Liberals now expected to be $4 billion, or $1 billion more than previously estimated.

“Andrew Barr knows the cost of Stage 2B of the tram will be astronomical and that is why he will not publicly state how much it will cost because the result will be further increases in rates and government charges for Canberrans,” she said.

The government says it cannot say how much Stage 2B will cost until the design work and business case are finalised, and even then, it cannot preempt contract negotiations.

However, Ms Lee said the government was selective about which projects it would speculate on.

“The argument of ‘commercial in confidence’ does not stack up when he is more than happy to spruik to Canberrans that a new Northside Hospital will cost $1 billion before any contracts have been signed.

“Why is it OK to reveal how much some infrastructure projects will cost but not the tram?”

Light rail on Adelaide Avenue. The Liberals will scrap what they say is a $4 billion project the ACT cannot afford. Image: ACT Government.

Ms Lee also said the government did not have a good record of delivering projects on time.

“We know this government is very good at making announcements with much fanfare and then re-announcing and rescoping projects, but where they fail time and time again is at delivery, as highlighted by the significantly delayed Canberra Hospital Expansion and Stage 2A of the tram,” she said.

Ms Lee said Mr Barr should be upfront with Canberrans about how much these promised projects would cost and when they would be completed before they go to the polls.

“Canberrans should and have every right to demand more transparency and more respect when it comes to where their money is being spent,” she said.

READ ALSO Extra light rail stop on Commonwealth Avenue in mix as Barr defends keeping route options open

Mr Barr has said the Territory could not afford to delay building once-in-50 or 100 years infrastructure over the coming decade.

But he said the government would seek to offset the cost through 50:50 Commonwealth funding partnerships and complementary asset sales, such as land for new housing.

He said a number of projects would not be able to proceed without Commonwealth support, presumably light rail and the stadium, which is expected to cost more than $500 million.

“They can’t all be built in one parliamentary term or year, but clearly, they will need to be over the next 10 years,” Mr Barr told Region ahead of the Budget Review.

He said most voters wanted to know the pipeline and that the government had a plan.

“People will be in no doubt about what we have done and what we intend to do and how it fits in with a longer-term plan.”

The new Canberra Hospital building is due to open in the third quarter of 2024, while the new Woden CIT is expected to be completed by 2025.

Mr Barr has repeatedly said that the Canberra Theatre development, which is in its design phase, would take priority over the stadium, convention centre and music pavilion.

Planning work is continuing on the Northside Hospital.

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GrumpyGrandpa3:31 pm 21 Feb 24

I’m in Brindabella and I’m concerned about the consequences for those living deep in the valley, should 2B proceed.

Hear me out.

As we know 2B will be slower than the existing R4&R5 services, and if the “dogleg” option proceeds, that travel time will increase again.

Recently, Minister Steele has said that the R4 & R5 would continue to run from Woden, for those who wanted a faster trip. Was that an ironclad guarantee or simply, election talk, subject to the final design being sorted?

My concern is that nothing will be finalised, design-wise, until after the election and economically it won’t be viable to run both LR and buses along the same route Woden to the City. Seriously, who pays for duplicated services?
Buses will be scrapped, just like buses were scrapped along Northbourne.

Southsiders will then be locked into increased commute times – Woden to the City and “eventually” when LR is taken to Tuggeranong, travel time will be extended again. If Woden to the City could take 30 minutes, its not unreasonable to assume 50 minutes on LR, Tuggeranong to the City (plus the bus commute time from the suburbs to Tuggeranong Interchange).

Without good, reliable, speedy, public transport your location becomes less favourable and just ask any real estate agent about the importance of location and public transport.

2B simply further isolates those living in the Tuggeranong Valley.

While the 2024 election will be about a lot of issues, for me in Brindabella, it’s about one issue 2B.

In quite a surprising moment last week, former Greens MLA Carolyn le Couter raised a number of these concerns and how Light Rail would provide a much slower Public Transport journey for residents from Mawson and surrounding suburbs and through Tuggeranong.

She wasn’t convinced Light Rail is suited for Canberra’s topology and spread out urban design.

Mr Barr takes heaps of infrastructure promises to elections and then never delivers on them.

We heard from him about a new Civic sports stadium and indoor Olympic level swimming centre at West Basin from well over a decade ago.

Tuggeranong voters have been promised an Ice rink, hydrotherapy pool and road duplication since before the 2016 ACT election. Not a single sod of ground has been turned.

Mr Barr continually talks a great Infrastructure story but he has a pretty poor infrastructure delivery record.

He also pushes forward on projects for political purposes ahead of the Infrastructure’s calculated business case findings. The 38 cents in the dollar cost benefit value for the $800 million stage 2a being a perfect example. Even the negative findings by the ACT Auditor General were pretty much ignored.

Actually an incredibly fair point, Barr can’t keep relying on ‘the Commonwealth will go splitskis with us’ forever. He’s bitten off more than he can chew and its current and future Canberrans who will be paying the price when copping outrageous debt interest repayments courtesy of this mob.

This is what happens when you let an Arts graduate manage an economy for ten years.

I never thought I’d ever be saying this, but as far as ACT’s infrastructure projects go, Ms Lee makes valid points. Canberrans don’t have a clear view of what is Really in the construction pipeline for out years and what the priorities are. There are numerous announcements but with little substance over subsequent time. I understand that politicians walk a fine line to keep all constituents happy, but from ongoing consultation with the community, they sometimes need to reset and be prepared to pivot.

I recall an old IT saying which said that if a development project ever went for more than 18 months, then it needed to be stopped and re-evaluated to see if it’ll still meet the required outcome. Client and consumer needs and expectations change over time.

My best example is light rail. I am personally a supporter of light rail, but I cannot see any way that a Woden route makes economic and practical sense – and I’m a Southsider. Surely to direct it over the bridge then eastwards through Barton to Kingston, Fyshwick and then possibly the airport, is more viable? But Any change will require our government to back down after years of promises. This would not be admitting an error, but that needs and priorities change.

Further to Ms Lee comments, it’s true that our current government does not have a good record of delivering projects on time. Apart from the Light Rail 2b debarcle, we can point to the Canberra Hospital expansion and the Molonglo bridge over Coppins Crossing as other examples. The quality of governance to major projects needs to be boosted, with more rubber on the road to complete the initiation and planning phases in a timely manner. This is what the initiative above is clearly lacking.

Does this mean that I’ll vote Liberal next election? Well, I’m yet to hear what their policy platform is, and I’m waiting to see if Labour has something realistic to declare if they have another term. Otherwise, I Am convinced that we do need more independent review and input into government priorities and decision making, so I’ll be watching the new clan of Independents closely leading up to the next election.

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