ACT Transport Minister Chris Steel has defended the Federal Government’s decision to axe funding from road projects to fund the tram, accusing the former Coalition government of having pork-barrelled them in the first place.
Mr Steel also refused to confirm a January 2026 delivery date for light rail Stage 2A, which had been given in Senate estimates by government officials last week.
The Transport Minister has come under increasing pressure to confirm a timeline for each element of the light rail from both the Opposition and the Greens as their fears of a long wait mount.
Early works to raise London Circuit – which must occur before tracks can be laid for Stage 2A to Commonwealth Park – are now underway.
That project will take around two years.
Stage 2B, probably the most challenging stage of all, will take light rail to Woden.
For this stage, a works approval application must be obtained from the National Capital Authority.
Mr Steel said he does not want to give the community “rubbery” figures about a delivery date and, therefore, will not provide one until next year after the procurement process has been completed and a contract has been signed.
He’s also stressed the complexity of the project is such that giving a deadline for its construction could compromise it commercially.
Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee and spokesperson for transport Mark Parton questioned Mr Steel in annual reports hearings on Monday (31 October) about how it was possible the Federal Government had a timeline for the project when the Territory did not.
In response, Mr Steel said federal officials were “speculating or forecasting what they think” about the date.
“They are forecasting what they think, but the reality is that it will be determined through the procurement process,” he said.
“That’s probably around the date but it’s probably not exact and we want to provide the community with certainty.”
Mr Parton said it was astounding that Mr Steel had been unable to confirm the timeline for the light rail.
“The responsible ACT Minister cannot and will not be upfront with the public,” Mr Parton said.
He accused the government of failing to be transparent with the community about the entirety of the project, which he said was being “shrouded in secrecy”.
It was also revealed in Senate estimates on Friday (28 October) that the South West Corridor ($50.9 m) Kings Highway upgrades to Pialligo Avenue ($30 m) and Boboyan Road project ($5 m) had been axed, with the same amount allocated to light rail, with the last payment in 2029-30.
Mr Steel also sought to cast doubt on this timeline for the payments. He said he had received alternative information from Infrastructure Minister Catherine King, who had written to him.
But he was unsure if he could table that letter.
He said there had been “some misrepresentation” of the Commonwealth funding schedule and the reality was that exactly when this funding would be rolled out would be confirmed in next year’s Federal Budget.
Mr Steel said the Commonwealth Government ultimately decided to axe funding for those projects.
“[It] engaged with all states and territories .. with a focus on reviewing projects which may have been considered pork-barreling,” he said.
“The South West corridor was one which came up because it’s been very clear from the beginning that project was ill-defined, didn’t have any particular deliverables and seemed to be a thought bubble.”
When asked why he had welcomed the Federal funding, he said he welcomed all Commonwealth funding but had tried to have the money re-diverted to what the Territory government saw as the city’s major bottleneck – Parkes Way.
Federal funding for the duplication of Athllon Drive had been retained and the ACT Government is still committed to completing the Boboyan Road subject to future funding allocation under a new deal.
Mr Steel said the government was also still investigating future upgrades to the South West corridor but “more holistically” with a view to what could be done to Parkes Way as well.
He also argued the Pialligo Avenue upgrades may not have been the most useful if that road eventually has to be moved to allow for the future extension of the runway at Canberra Airport.