The ACT Government has all but abandoned its preferred route through Barton for Stage 2 of light rail from Civic to Woden, confirming that a more direct route around State Circle is now the most likely.
Transport Minister Meegan Fitzharris also indicated that the 92-year-old Weston plantings of cedars may not need to be sacrificed, with talks continuing with the Commonwealth on whether the track is laid on the median or road on Commonwealth Avenue.
The Minister was reacting to the Federal Government’s response to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories report into Commonwealth and Parliamentary approvals for the proposed Stage 2 of the ACT light rail project.
The Federal Government endorsed the committee’s findings including that a route through the heritage areas of Parkes and Barton would result in a longer approvals process that would add considerably to the cost and delivery time of the project.
But the Federal Government did give the ACT some leeway in the amount of wire-free running required on Commonwealth land, saying its support for the committee’s recommendation would be subject to further information about the viability of a wire-free route.
It also provides some flexibility on environmental and heritage requirements with the caveat ‘without restricting future change’ in its agreement in principle that the landscape setting of the Central National Area be preserved.
Ms Fitzharris said the Commonwealth had given a clear pathway and road map for Stage 2 to Woden, and the Barton route was no longer a viable option.
“So our view now is that we want to get light rail to Woden built,” she said. “We’re looking at a range of options for a more direct route, and we think going around the eastern side of Parliament House on State Circle is the more likely route,” she said.
She said that consultation on the route had shown a preference for the Barton route but that had clearly changed. “We now do view a more direct route as the most likely route to Woden,” the Minister said.
This will be welcome news to the Woden Valley Community Council and some public transport and planning lobbyists who had always argued a direct route would be faster and maintain the integrity of the north-south transport spine.
Ms Fitzharris said the Commonwealth’s response allowed the ACT to continue its planning work and put forward its referral, under the EPBC Act, of environment and heritage matters to the Commonwealth, expected to be ready by the middle of the year.
She said the more direct route might not necessarily be cheaper and the cost would depend on the final route and the Commonwealth approvals processes.
She agreed that the Commonwealth had given some room for movement on wire-free running, given an interest in its technical viability, but the Government had already accepted that it would be a requirement.
“It’s the extent to which it can run, particularly along Adelaide Avenue, that probably will become the main issue,” she said.
“Our current vehicle can undertake wire-free running anyway so we have future-proofed our existing vehicles for that,” Ms Fitzharris said.
“The Commonwealth made clear, which we absolutely agree with, that the amenity and heritage value of the Parliamentary Triangle be retained,” she said.
“And we will make the case to the Commonwealth that not only can we do that, but we can actually enhance the amenity of the Parliamentary Triangle with light rail.”
Ms Fitzharris said that in Stage 1 all of the trees removed had been replaced and more planted, and that approach would continue.
She welcomed the fact that the Commonwealth had responded before the May election and looked forward to immediate discussions with the new Government, which if Labor, might be more sympathetic to the ACT’s light rail plans.
Assistant Minister for Regional Development and Territories Sussan Ley said the Federal Government encouraged the National Capital Authority and the ACT Government to continue working together to ensure that the proposed route for the project is consistent with the National Capital Plan.
Ms Fitzharris continued to refuse to provide a firm starting date for Stage 1, except that it would be some time in April.