The ACT Labor-Greens alliance has shot down a Canberra Liberals’ motion to provide a cost-benefit assessment of light rail stage 2B, stating it wouldn’t make sense while negotiations for the project were ongoing.
Shadow Minister for Transport Mark Parton brought forward the motion in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday (27 June), calling on the ACT Government to stop proceeding with any works contracts or infrastructure procurements for stage 2B until a cost-benefit assessment had been provided.
He wanted the assessment to compare the proposed stage 2B capital and recurring cost with an electric bus option and “other options” to deliver passenger services between Civic and Woden, give forward budget estimates for each option, show the capital and operating cost differences, and omit estimates of land value uplift from the expected light rail route between Civic and Woden.
“The motion calls on the ACT Government … to press pause on the pursuit of at least stage 2B of this ‘white elephant’ right now, but to just come clean with exactly where we’re at,” Mr Parton said.
“Right now the details are not really forthcoming, and this government’s not keen to lay out the numbers because they know the numbers don’t stack up.”
Mr Parton said this stage would cost more than previous ones because of the engineering works, road works and bridge works required.
“Are we about to spend a very large and yet unknown sum of money to improve our public transport system, or are we just spending way too much to increase the price of land along the light rail corridor?” he asked.
“We are yet to be informed of the cost of stage 2B, even a ballpark figure … we shouldn’t be kept in the dark about what’s going on here.”
Greens Transport spokesperson Jo Clay said while she was interested in some of the suggestions made in Mr Parton’s motion, it didn’t contain enough detail or scope for what could be investigated or debated as an alternative.
She also said it wasn’t a “good idea” to advertise the maximum amount you’d be able to spend when negotiating contracts.
“You don’t publish your upper [cost] limit while you’re negotiating a deal,” Ms Clay said.
“You’ll get charged that top rate if you tell people what it is.”
She pointed out that removing land value uplift from any cost-benefit reports would go against a request from the ACT Auditor General to provide economic analysis which, among other things, considered land value uplift, in light of his report on light rail stage 2A.
Minister for Transport Chris Steel introduced a number of amendments, including that the Assembly recognise the government had already committed to publishing the business case for light rail stage 2A and 2B, as well as their contracts once procurements had been finalised and contracts signed.
“However the release of costing details prior to signing contracts will not be provided where it may negatively impact the ACT Government’s ability to achieve value for money through the procurement,” it stated.
The government has also committed to publishing assessments of the ‘realisation of benefits’ of both stages after operations have commenced, as well as to update the Assembly on the benefits realised on stage 1 in 2024, including benefits from land value changes.
Mr Steel argued Mr Parton’s motion was “just another Liberal attack on a better public transport system for our city” because the party had no transport policy plan of its own.
He said the original motion had failed to recognise that the government had already committed to releasing a business case report about stage 2B, which would include an economic analysis in accordance with national guidelines, once a contract was signed and procurement was finalised.
It also couldn’t be developed until National Capital Authority and Federal Parliament approval processes had been completed.
“It’s very concerning to see this radical proposal, this radical disregard for using nationally accepted guidelines in the development of light rail stage 2 business case,” Mr Steel said.
“In this motion, the Liberals have called on the ACT Government to omit estimates of land value uplift from the public transport route between Woden and Civic.
“What they’re calling on the ACT Government to do is manipulate the business case to suit their agenda, and to go against recommendations made by the ACT Auditor General in their recent performance audit of the stage 2A business case.”
Mr Steel’s amended motion passed the Assembly, with no support from the Canberra Liberals.
In response, Mr Parton promised he would be releasing a “comprehensive” transport policy in the lead-up to the 2024 election and warned he’d be watching closely to hold the government “to account”.
“I will be watching [Mr Steel’s] every step, I will be taking note of every failed promise, I will be recording every milestone that we fail to meet, every delay, every cost blow-out, every single time that something doesn’t go to plan,” he said.
“I will be there and I will shine a light on it.”