It was only early last year that Transport Minister Chris Steel was insisting that the first track for the light rail extension to Commonwealth Park would be laid before the ACT went back to the polls in October 2024.
Well, that’s just not going to happen.
A lot has happened in the past year and a half, so Mr Steel could be forgiven for being a touch optimistic.
Even then he was vague about a starting time and he has since steadfastly refused to be pinned down, although it became clearer as time went on that the project was having trouble leaving the station.
Mr Steel’s performance at Estimates last week confirmed that the light rail to Woden, and subsequent stages, will be a slow train coming.
Slower than many expected.
His refusal to provide any sort of indicative timetable, or repeat previous comments about one stage a decade, only confirmed in Liberal minds that the whole project is dodgy, and upset the Greens, who want light rail rolled out across Canberra as quickly as possible.
Mr Steel cited contractual negotiations and the need to develop a business case for Stage 2B across the lake to Woden for not being able to provide any sort of time frame.
It is of course also a tricky time for any infrastructure project, with the supply chain hold-ups and competition for materials and labour.
Mr Steel doesn’t want to provide rubbery numbers or raise expectations that can’t be met, but leaving an information vacuum allows all sorts of speculation to rush in.
He should have provided an honest indicative, even aspirational, timeline. If the project hits its milestones or even moves faster than expected, the Government is a winner.
If it doesn’t, there will probably be good reasons, but saying nothing now will not protect or absolve the Government, just convince people they are being kept in the dark.
As it is, they are doing their own calculations based on what is available.
The required raising of London Circuit is due to start soon and will take two years, and no track can be laid until that is complete.
The Works Approval for Stage 2A is expected to be lodged with the NCA before the end of the year and no contract can be signed before it gets the green light.
Meanwhile, the multi-level approvals process for the much more complex Stage 2B, which will have to go through the Parliamentary Zone, grinds on.
If Stage 2A gets underway by the end of 2024 or early 2025, will the Government also be able to make a start getting across the lake?
If it is going to take till 2026/7 to finish the 4.7 km to Commonwealth Park, can we realistically expect to get to Woden by the end of the decade?
Without some sort of timetable to guide the project, it will inevitably invite barbs that it is a ghost train that will never arrive.
Mr Steel’s obduracy, and the implication that the project faces delays, will disappoint those who have bought into Woden apartment developments with an eye to light rail.
Canberra’s public transport lobby is also concerned, first at Woden being shunted off into the distant future, and then at the ramifications for the bus network, for which light rail should free up capacity to service other parts of the Territory.
No doubt Mr Steel and the Government would like to get light rail moving as quickly as possible, but the slow rate of progress so far on just the first leg does not augur well for the rest of the stage.
It raises questions about whether the Territory has enough planning resources for these big infrastructure projects, and whether raising London Circuit was the best approach, given the two-year lag with that project.
It is hoped that a Federal Labor Government will deliver for Canberra the way Chief Minister Andrew Barr hopes, and that Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government Minister Catherine King was serious when she said “we’re partnering with the ACT Government on Stage 2A, and obviously the ACT Government will come to us when it’s ready to talk about Stage 2B of the project”.
Streamlining the approvals would be a good place to start for the feds.
In the meantime, Mr Steel needs to stop sounding like he has something to hide to maintain confidence in the project.