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The best arguments for light rail just aren’t very good

By Kim Huynh - 8 September 2016 74

light rail

Tom Chen and Kim Huynh assess light rail on its merits and can’t find much reason to support it.

This is the challenge that we set ourselves: to impartially weigh up the arguments for and against the tram. Tom had no view on the matter. Kim started off very slightly in favour because he liked the idea of light rail bringing Canberrans together.

After examining a wide range of media articles and opinion pieces, material from the parties and lobby groups and reports by government and non-government organizations, we concluded that the best thing to do is stop the tram.

It’s unlikely to be worthwhile in economic, environmental, transportation or development terms. Plans to extend the system to Woden will only extend the ACT’s debt, deepen our disappointment and further divide our city.

 

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Here are five of the best reasons for light rail and why they are not persuasive.

5. We’re locked in

Given that contracts have been signed and work on the tram line has begun, Simon Corbell argues that it would be “reckless and lunatic” to cancel the contract.

However, just because we’ve started to spend money on light rail does not mean that we should continue to do so. An outlay of $220-$280 million for nothing is better than spending $939 million on a project that will benefit a small minority of Canberrans while in all likelihood imposing long-term costs on all of us.

Moreover, this so-called reckless lunacy could have been avoided if the Barr government had simply waited a few months before signing the light rail contracts. Perhaps the best hope for the tram is it having a strong mandate from the people. Achieving this mandate is now nigh on impossible. Even if Labor is re-elected on this issue there will be a sense that our hearts and minds were not won over but rather that our arms were twisted.

4. It’s good for the environment

The Greens have championed light rail as being good for the environment. However, light rail has no environmental advantage over electric cars or buses. Instead of light rail we could be funding more effective measures of reducing emissions and improving energy efficiency in homes and businesses.

For example, bicycle highways advocated by pedal power could go a long way to providing the sort of lifestyle and convenience benefits that many progressive voters desire without having anywhere near as much of an impact on the budget and the environment.

3. Light rail has greater capacity and therefore reduces congestion. 

Each tram by Spanish firm CAF will have room for 207 occupants. This means that a light rail system can move many people with few trips, which is why light rail is so important to metropolises like Tokyo and Hong Kong.

However, rail in Tokyo and Hong Kong are successful because of high numbers of passengers and frequent services. This will not be the case in Canberra where users will have to regularly wait 15 minutes for the next tram.

Despite fears of an impending congestion crisis, Canberra’s buses have significant spare capacity. Canberra’s buses typically have room for 43-48 passengers, yet based on patronage data only 9 out of 92 bus routes carried more than 40 passengers on their trips and 75% bus routes are more than half empty.

In addition, a smaller carrying capacity is an advantage if it allows for more frequent trips and broader coverage.

Just as there’s no good reason to buy an oversized pair of boots, there’s no benefit and potentially much detriment in investing in light rail.

2. Light rail is good value

Another argument for light rail is its relatively low operation costs. However, the Capital Metro contract states that only 28% of the costs over a 20-year period relate to operating costs. The majority of the estimated $939 million bill for stage one between Gungahlin and Civic will go to infrastructure.

By their own analysis, the 2012 ACT Government submission to Infrastructure Australia found that the net social benefits of a bus network servicing the Gungahlin corridor is double that of light rail. Indeed, a 2016 review by the Auditor-General Maxine Cooper questioned whether the non-transport related benefits of the tram have been exaggerated to sell the business case because the transport benefits were so slim. Specifically, Ms Cooper found that almost 60 per cent of the ‘benefits’ of light rail were questionable because they were associated with wider economic and land benefits. The transport benefits amounted to merely 49 cents for every $1 spent.

1. The tram is good for development and the future of the city

For many, light rail represents not just transport infrastructure but the dream of a “modern, liveable and environmentally-friendly city”. Shane Rattenbury argues that light rail will increase property values near stations and facilitate denser apartment and townhouse-style living. Denser living in turn makes it easier to provide public services and amenities which will attract young people and innovators to stay and work in Canberra.

But density is not inherently good and nor is it best achieved in conjunction with light rail. Professor Jenny Stewart concludes that light rail alone is unlikely to deliver the benefits that Rattenbury hopes for. Rather than fueling cross town commutes which will increase congestion in the long run, we should be trying to provide for a balanced mix of housing, employment and recreation in closer proximity, thus reducing the need to commute. This has little to do with light rail and everything to do with good planning.

A better choice
Instead of throwing more and more money into the light rail system, Canberra should upgrade the ACTION bus network in which it has invested so much already. But it is not simply about more infrastructure or having the right routes, which is the focus of both major parties’ bus policies. Public transportation is ultimately about attitudes and behaviour. The use of mass transit in Canberra in 2013 was only 4.2%. The issue is not a shortfall of capacity, but one of uptake since the efficiency of Canberra’s roads means that driving is the preferred option.

A proponent of public transport should instead consider incentives to encourage the use of public transportation. A former finance manager from ACTION we spoke to agreed with our assessment that there were a lot of ways to improve delivery and patronage rates if only the major parties were willing to think outside the box.

For example, why not make buses free? One major factor that skews transportation decisions in favour of cars is the perception by users that driving is free (notwithstanding petrol, servicing and parking costs). The cost of making buses free for users is fairly cheap. In 2015, only 18% of ACTION revenue came from bus fares, amounting to $24 million. As it stands, four fifths of ACTION’s operating revenue is already subsidised by rates payers.

The capital of Estonia, Tallinn has a population of 400,000 and offers free public transportation for residents. By following this example, Canberrans can get a lot more out of our existing transportation infrastructure while spending a lot less than light rail.

Finally, in the long run, light rail will become a relic of the twentieth century. Mass transportation is better delivered by networks of autonomous vehicles that can take us from door to door in a convenient, safe, green and cheap way. This is technology being trialled right now in cities like Austin, Pittsburgh and Singapore.

Canberra’s public transportation system should be informed by our current desires and interests with a view to our future needs. The tram fails in all these regards.

What have we missed? What’s your impartial and considered assessment of light rail? What impact will the issue have on the 2016 election and on local politics more broadly?

Tom Chen is a research officer at the Australian National University. Kim Huynh is a RiotACT columnist and independent candidate for Ginninderra. Check out more at GoKimbo.com.au

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74 Responses to
The best arguments for light rail just aren’t very good
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dungfungus 4:03 pm 13 Oct 16

bringontheevidence said :

Ray Polglaze said :

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but the poll with this article on light rail is proving to be amazingly stable as more people are adding their votes.

Since 20 September 2016, when there were 938 votes, another 250 people have added their votes to give a current total of 1 188 votes (as of 12 October 2016). That’s an increase of 27.7% in the total votes.

But as those votes have been added, only one percentage has changed. That is the percentage voting for candidates who are anti-light rail which has increased by 1% from 36% to 37%. All the other percentages have stayed the same.

So, even though there seems to be no way to establish that this is a representative poll, it may still be sending an important message.

The key question still seems to be what the Green and Labor voters who don’t like light rail decide to do with their votes.

If this poll is close to representing the actual public opinion in the ACT, and given that only 10% voted Green last time, the Greens may have 70% of their vote at risk over light rail.

That looks like living dangerously as a political strategy.

You’re assuming the Labor and Greens voters feel strongly enough about light rail to change their vote to conservative because of it?

Only if the unions instruct them to do so.

bringontheevidence 11:52 am 13 Oct 16

Ray Polglaze said :

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but the poll with this article on light rail is proving to be amazingly stable as more people are adding their votes.

Since 20 September 2016, when there were 938 votes, another 250 people have added their votes to give a current total of 1 188 votes (as of 12 October 2016). That’s an increase of 27.7% in the total votes.

But as those votes have been added, only one percentage has changed. That is the percentage voting for candidates who are anti-light rail which has increased by 1% from 36% to 37%. All the other percentages have stayed the same.

So, even though there seems to be no way to establish that this is a representative poll, it may still be sending an important message.

The key question still seems to be what the Green and Labor voters who don’t like light rail decide to do with their votes.

If this poll is close to representing the actual public opinion in the ACT, and given that only 10% voted Green last time, the Greens may have 70% of their vote at risk over light rail.

That looks like living dangerously as a political strategy.

You’re assuming the Labor and Greens voters feel strongly enough about light rail to change their vote to conservative because of it?

dungfungus 10:54 am 13 Oct 16

And contrary to what a lot of light rail supporters would have us believe, it is not the raging success it is made out to be in other cities/countries:

http://pilotonline.com/news/local/transportation/virginia-beach-light-rail-referendum-is-in-a-dead-heat/article_331993ae-3547-57f5-98a6-92ae820b8e87.html

Why couldn’t we have had a referendum this Saturday?

dungfungus 8:20 am 13 Oct 16

Laurel said :

Why is there not more speculation about the amount of corruption that must have been involved in setting up these $200 million that needs to be refunded if the project doesn’t go ahead?

I mean, according to all of the surveys and accounting, the project itself is guaranteed to be a loser for everyone except the government and their union and business buddies, but how did they manage to tack on the cherry of a $200 million debt that needs to be repaid?

Surely there must be some leakers among the readers who could at least obliquely outline a tasty story of what went on among those sweaty, greasy hands behind the closed office doors?

Any flies on the wall who could paint a picture for the public without overstepping the bounds of propriety?

It’s not speculation, it’s a well documented fact:

https://books.google.com.au/books?id=QbZEbihNOfUC&pg=PA104&lpg=PA104&dq=corruption+associated+with+light+rail+projects&source=bl&ots=dGInDJkIZY&sig=Xput0Og_EWHEevLIOBblOQhrdYc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjW-e33l9bPAhVkwlQKHf6oBlwQ6AEIMzAF#v=onepage&q=corruption%20associated%20with%20light%20rail%20projects&f=false

And this:

http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/light-rail-company-has-bribery-background/news-story/9c2b401b7c29932e5cc0f1a73a5fd834

Ray Polglaze 11:28 pm 12 Oct 16

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but the poll with this article on light rail is proving to be amazingly stable as more people are adding their votes.

Since 20 September 2016, when there were 938 votes, another 250 people have added their votes to give a current total of 1 188 votes (as of 12 October 2016). That’s an increase of 27.7% in the total votes.

But as those votes have been added, only one percentage has changed. That is the percentage voting for candidates who are anti-light rail which has increased by 1% from 36% to 37%. All the other percentages have stayed the same.

So, even though there seems to be no way to establish that this is a representative poll, it may still be sending an important message.

The key question still seems to be what the Green and Labor voters who don’t like light rail decide to do with their votes.

If this poll is close to representing the actual public opinion in the ACT, and given that only 10% voted Green last time, the Greens may have 70% of their vote at risk over light rail.

That looks like living dangerously as a political strategy.

Laurel 1:08 am 08 Oct 16

Why is there not more speculation about the amount of corruption that must have been involved in setting up these $200 million that needs to be refunded if the project doesn’t go ahead?

I mean, according to all of the surveys and accounting, the project itself is guaranteed to be a loser for everyone except the government and their union and business buddies, but how did they manage to tack on the cherry of a $200 million debt that needs to be repaid?

Surely there must be some leakers among the readers who could at least obliquely outline a tasty story of what went on among those sweaty, greasy hands behind the closed office doors?

Any flies on the wall who could paint a picture for the public without overstepping the bounds of propriety?

devils_advocate 5:05 pm 04 Oct 16

The issue of sovereign risk does not arise. The word is being misappropriated in this context.

The estimated $200m cost to ‘tear up the contracts’ is to compensate private businesses for their LOSSES associated with the project not going ahead. That is all they are entitled to at law. No matter who a business deals with – the government, private individuals – they are not entitled to compensation for ‘expectation losses’ or the profits they would have made had the contract gone ahead. No, they are just entitled to the losses they actually suffered in reliance on the contractual promises exchanged. That is precisely as it should be, and not what the concept of sovereign risk refers to.

Sovereign risk refers to situations where the Government either changes a law to be disadvantageous (usually to a foreign party) or otherwise confiscates assets or seriously modifies their rights or remedies; or simply defaults on its obligations. There is no suggestion that has happened here. No-one is suggesting the liberals will walk away from the contract, simply that they will cancel the ongoing agreement within the current framework of laws that exist.

Kim Huynh 11:44 am 04 Oct 16

anneenna said :

WHAT YOU WROTE
5. We’re locked in
Given that contracts have been signed and work on the tram line has begun, Simon Corbell argues that it would be “reckless and lunatic” to cancel the contract.
However, just because we’ve started to spend money on light rail does not mean that we should continue to do so. An outlay of $220-$280 million for nothing is better than spending $939 million on a project that will benefit a small minority of Canberrans while in all likelihood imposing long-term costs on all of us.

MY RESPONSE
Quoting the Financial Review, http://www.afr.com/…/breaking-act-lightrail-contract…
“Three peak business groups have asked the ACT Liberals to reconsider their promise to tear up the contract for the $783 million ACT light-rail project if they win next year’s election…The Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group and Infrastructure Partnerships Australia have written to ACT Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson, asking him to not break the contract for the rail project…the business groups warned of rising sovereign risk if the ACT project was canned which would only make infrastructure projects more expensive. “If the light-rail contract was cancelled, the cost and risk of doing business in the Territory would rise. It is in the ACT’s own interest to avoid sovereign-type risks in Australia’s infrastructure market.”
“The letter is signed by Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott, Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox and Infrastructure Partnerships Australia chief executive Brendan Lyon. Former assistant infrastructure minister Jamie Briggs described the ACT Liberal’s move to cancel the contract as “economic lunacy”. “As we have seen with the East West Link disaster in Victoria, tearing up legally binding infrastructure contracts raises sovereign risk, damages investor confidence and stifles economic growth,” Mr Briggs said in June.”

WHAT YOU WROTE
Even if Labor is re-elected on this issue there will be a sense that our hearts and minds were not won over but rather that our arms were twisted.
“Perhaps the best hope for the tram is it having a strong mandate from the people.”

MY RESPONSE
Labor and the Greens both campaigned on a platform of building the light rail for the 2012 election, and Labor won a decisive victory on that basis. Furthermore there have been discussions about the light rail through consultations in the community and through reports for over 10 years.

WHAT YOU WROTE
4. It’s good for the environment
The Greens have championed light rail as being good for the environment. However, light rail has no environmental advantage over electric cars or buses. Instead of light rail we could be funding more effective measures of reducing emissions and improving energy efficiency in homes and businesses.

MY RESPONSE
Light rail is vastly superior for the environment, it does not rely on an internal combustion engine which is only less than 30% efficient, furthermore there is much less friction between the wheels and the track (steel-steel) than between tyres and the road (rubber-concrete or asphalt), hence less energy is lost, not to mention no energy in transporting the fuel from the other side of the world or fueling conflict overseas. The power source is 100% renewable energy by 2020, thus this light rail will be Australia’s first pollution free and zero emissions public transport system.

WHAT YOU WROTE:
For example, bicycle highways advocated by pedal power could go a long way to providing the sort of lifestyle and convenience benefits that many progressive voters desire without having anywhere near as much of an impact on the budget and the environment.

MY RESPONSE
Bicycle highways are not practical for people who have mobility problems. Furthermore, a large proportion of the ACT population do not ride their bike in Winter or on rainy days.

WHAT YOU WROTE
3. Light rail has greater capacity and therefore reduces congestion.
“However, rail in Tokyo and Hong Kong are successful because of high numbers of passengers and frequent services. This will not be the case in Canberra where users will have to regularly wait 15 minutes for the next tram.”
MY RESPONSE
This is not correct. Light rail services will run at 6 minute intervals.

WHAT YOU WROTE
2. Light rail is good value
Another argument for light rail is its relatively low operation costs. However, the Capital Metro contract states that only 28% of the costs over a 20-year period relate to operating costs. The majority of the estimated $939 million bill for stage one between Gungahlin and Civic will go to infrastructure.

MY RESPONSE
As Richard Denniss says, do you always buy the cheapest food available? Then why should cost be the main criteria of choosing transport systems? The light rail will cost 1% of the ACT budget. It is hardly breaking the budget.

WHAT YOU WROTE
1. The tram is good for development and the future of the city
For many, light rail represents not just transport infrastructure but the dream of a “modern, liveable and environmentally-friendly city”. Shane Rattenbury argues that light rail will increase property values near stations and facilitate denser apartment and townhouse-style living. Denser living in turn makes it easier to provide public services and amenities which will attract young people and innovators to stay and work in Canberra.
But density is not inherently good and nor is it best achieved in conjunction with light rail. Professor Jenny Stewart concludes that light rail alone is unlikely to deliver the benefits that Rattenbury hopes for. Rather than fueling cross town commutes which will increase congestion in the long run, we should be trying to provide for a balanced mix of housing, employment and recreation in closer proximity, thus reducing the need to commute. This has little to do with light rail and everything to do with good planning.

MY RESPONSE
Agreed, so we can do both good planning and light rail.

WHAT YOU WROTE
A better choice
Finally, in the long run, light rail will become a relic of the twentieth century. Mass transportation is better delivered by networks of autonomous vehicles that can take us from door to door in a convenient, safe, green and cheap way. This is technology being trialled right now in cities like Austin, Pittsburgh and Singapore.

MY RESPONSE
Autonomous vehicles are dangerous. They do not navigate the changing conditions of roads well. They are unlikely to become the mainstay of public transport systems. They are also not cheap.
Light rail is more suited to todays era of using handheld devices while commuting as it is far more comfortable to read while travelling than on a bus.

Respect to you anneenna for this detailed response. I’ve been getting quite a few similar ones on my Belco sojourn. The one that interests me the most in the sovereign risk argument, which I think has to be taken into account as a cost of tearing up the contracts. I’m not sure exactly how much that amounts to and would be interested in more details. My political sense tells me that it’s preferable to listen to your constituency rather than peak business bodies (it’s not like they don’t have a dog in the fight). My economic sense tells me worrying about staying out of debt is more important than worrying about sovereign risk. And my moral sense tells me that if the government hadn’t been so dastardly and pushed ahead with the contracts a few months out from the election we wouldn’t be having this aspect of the debate.

On a related note, Kirsten Lawson of Canberra Times fame mentioned on the wireless yesterday that she didn’t think the tram would go beyond stage 1 if Labor was re-elected because no government would put itself through this again. Any thoughts anyone?

Kim Huynh 11:33 am 04 Oct 16

pink little birdie said :

Kim Huynh said :

I’d be interested in receiving more information (via the comments or info@gokimbo.com.au) about the impact of light rail on housing affordability along the light rail corridor. I’ve been speaking to young people and students in particular who are in favour of the tram and want to live near it, but who are not sure about whether or not they’ll be able to afford it. K

Your students support it because you work at a university with a high number of international students who mainly come from cities where they as young people they don’t drive.
This is where I am confused by your stance. ANU students who move here generally live on the northbourne corridor or gunghalin so it’s a huge benefit to those students.
The buses now don’t even have route maps at the interchange so catching a bus is rather challenging for infrequent or new users. A fixed line transport clarifies the route.
And makes transport more secure in routes and timings.

I sympathetic to your point. My concern is that as I understand it almost nothing has been put aside for affordable housing in the Northbourne corridor, so there’s a good chance despite the increased supply it will be harder for students and lower income people to live there. At the very least, the rates will be high which will be passed on to renters. A tram may well benefit those students who do live there, but we think bike highways and free buses would do so more. K

Kim Huynh 11:06 pm 03 Oct 16

I’ll try to return to this argument and address some of the new and newish points that have been raised. But for now I’d point out that a) this is a great and important debate that b) we should have been having before the contracts were signed and construction started. Respect to all of us for a) and no respect to the government for b). K.

gooterz 8:08 pm 03 Oct 16

rommeldog56 said :

anneenna said :

Light rail is more suited to today’s era of using handheld devices while commuting as it is far more comfortable to read while travelling than on a bus.

Really. Most bus passengers can sit down to use their hand held devices and laptops. What about trams ? Many more tram passengers will be standing up compared to in buses. There are other comments on your post – but that will do.

Well no. Buses are generally much faster so wouldnt always have time to get a laptop out.

rommeldog56 5:34 pm 03 Oct 16

anneenna said :

Light rail is more suited to today’s era of using handheld devices while commuting as it is far more comfortable to read while travelling than on a bus.

Really. Most bus passengers can sit down to use their hand held devices and laptops. What about trams ? Many more tram passengers will be standing up compared to in buses. There are other comments on your post – but that will do.

rommeldog56 5:30 pm 03 Oct 16

anneenna said :

Agreed, so we can do both good planning and light rail.

Look at the planning in the ACT !! ACT labor, in anticipation of last weeks damning report into the LDA by the Auditor General, announced a new planning authority. Given the poor track record of planning by the ACT Labor/Greens Gov’t, you must be eternally optimistic (or a rusted on Labor/Greens supporter) to think that it will change. Good planning and Light Rail will not go hand in hand – unfortunately.

rommeldog56 5:24 pm 03 Oct 16

anneenna said :

As Richard Denniss says, do you always buy the cheapest food available? Then why should cost be the main criteria of choosing transport systems? The light rail will cost 1% of the ACT budget. It is hardly breaking the budget.

(1) I dunno about you, but I always buy the cheapest MOST SUITABLE food. In relation to the tram, BRT was much cheaper, just as fast and had a vastly superior Business Costs Ratio. So, your analogy to buying “the cheapest food available” is just silly.

(2) The 1% comment. Good grief. That has been widely discredited, but is still being used by ACT Labor. It is for stage 1 only. Despite announcing that Tram stage 2 will now go Civic-Woden and if re elected ACT Labor/Greens will sign contracts before the 2020 election, ACT Labor/Greens have not released what the cost will be for stage 2. They want a blank cheque from ACT voters/Ratepayers. Additionally, an ex head of ACT Treasury has recently estimated that all stages of the tram will cost about b$14.

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