Transport Minister Chris Steel is insisting that track will be laid on London Circuit before the next election in October 2024 but the ACT Government remains vague about the timeline for light rail Stage 2A to Commonwealth Park after overcoming the major hurdle of federal environment approval.
Neither Mr Steel nor Chief Minister Andrew Barr would be pinned down on when actual construction would start other than to say the enabling work of raising London Circuit to the level of Commonwealth Avenue will commence in 2021-22.
Given the two-year construction period for that piece of work, the 1.7 km light rail project itself might be pushed out beyond 2024. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has already caused delays, and the signing of contracts had been expected in mid-2020.
Although one hurdle has been overcome, Stage 2A still requires National Capital Authority and ACT Planning approvals before the government is in a position to sign contracts.
Mr Steel said the government was already working with the NCA and planning authority on the next steps and hoped to be able to present the NCA with a final document as soon as possible.
Public Transport Association of Canberra chair Ryan Hemsley welcomed the approval as an important milestone and said the government probably needed to know what requirements the NCA may impose that could affect the cost of the project before signing any contracts, but he still expected to see light rail on London Circuit by the 2024 election.
”I suspect it comes down to NCA works approval,” he said.
”There are no real concerns; however, I suspect that NCA will want quite a deal of additional information noting the significance of the project with respect to precincts under their control.”
Approval conditions relate to managing the habitat of the Golden Sun Moth and the government providing offsets.
Mr Barr advised patience, saying the government will make more announcements in coming weeks that will provide more clarity.
Mr Hemsley said there were inevitable delays in all major projects, and the government may have got a ”bit burned” with Stage 1.
”I suspect there will be a whole series of unknowns with respect to utilities relocation and other servicing matters around London Circuit which might be causing some hesitancy in the government with regard to timelines for Stage 2A,” he said.
He believed there was a push in government to ensure the staging is done in a way that complementary projects can occur simultaneously where possible.
Mr Barr said the project would be disruptive to the southern end of the city for the next three or four years but the work would enable land release and a number of other projects to be undertaken.
The $137 million Commonwealth Bridge upgrade and the ongoing Acton Waterfront will also be occurring.
”We will seek to work with them to align the most disruptive works so they don’t all occur at once, and doesn’t stretch out over an extended period,” he said.
Mr Hemsley said the interim traffic arrangements for the raising of London Circuit may affect the ability of the government to start work on light rail itself at the beginning of the route.
”It might be undesirable to have other parts of the city closed for simultaneous work,” he said.
”We will be pushing the government about what those traffic arrangements will be because they will affect buses travelling from the south. There are a number of rapid routes that use Commonwealth Avenue where it traverses London Circuit.”
Mr Steel said the government was working with businesses along the route to minimise disruption but light rail would have long-term economic benefits, and benefits for public transport as the city grew.
Mr Barr said 2A would provide another north-south route through the city and the raising of London Circuit would restore the road to what it was in the 1960s, and closer to what the Griffins originally intended.
He said it was the culmination of 20 years’ planning and would support the city as it grew down towards the lake.
There is $2.1 million in next week’s Budget for early design work to raise London Circuit as well as $1 million for a feasibility study on extending light rail even further from Woden to Mawson.
Work is proceeding on an Environmental Impact Statement for Stage 2B to Woden to meet EPBC requirements, which will include community consultation.
Stage 2B will also need NCA and federal parliamentary approval but Mr Hemsley said the project may not necessarily be pushed out further, saying work could start earlier on sections near Woden that were not subject to federal approval.
”It would have been a smart idea to start on a section of Woden that doesn’t require federal approval as soon as possible,” he said.
”And keep an eye on the Mawson extension given the works to duplicate Athllon Drive, where some of those [light rail and road] works might occur in tandem.”