Thursday, September 12, 2013

ACT Light Rail meet Jeremy Hanson

The Canberra Liberals went into the 2012 Assembly Election with a very scant policy on public transport, and with Jeremy Hanson assuming the role of Opposition Leader in 2013, ACT Light Rail thought it would be a good idea to meet with him and sound him out on his ideas concerning public transport and light rail in Canberra.

The meeting was very wide ranging over a number of policy areas concerning Canberra, but I will focus on transport policy for this article.

In a nutshell, the Hanson led Liberals will continue to oppose the Capital Metro project. They have a number of grounds for this stance:
  • They aren’t convinced of the economic case for light rail put by the Government
  • They support redevelopment along Northbourne but do not believe it would receive any advantages from light rail
  • They have doubts about the ALP government’s ability to deliver the Capital Metro project on time and on budget
  • They believe that the money can be better spent elsewhere
  • With the Territory budget not in surplus, they don’t believe we should be spending money on projects of this size

ACT Light Rail are well aware of these positions as they are consistent with the barrage of press releases on the Capital Metro program issued by MLA Alistair Coe several months ago. As we said at the time, the position is understandable, except that the Canberra Liberals have no better public transport position or policy alternative to offer.

Disappointingly Jeremy didn’t mention the Infrastructure Canberra proposal from their 2012 Assembly election policy platform. That policy was very appealing as it looked to create a body that would oversee major capital and transport infrastructure, with forward planning and an integrated approach (unlike the current method with multiple departments overseeing multiple major projects, and little forward planning outside the electoral cycle).

He conceded that he liked the concept of light rail, but felt it would be better suited to Canberra at some point in the future. This argument is one that really surprises me from a politician (although I have heard it many times before). It is either lip service to fob off public transport advocates or a genuine belief that a light rail system is required, if the latter is the case, then it’s a matter of making it a policy priority and working to deliver a community benefit.  

We did get into a discussion on the relative merits of the current Capital Metro proposal serving Gungahlin and Civic, but not other parts of Canberra such as Tuggeranong. Our position is that we may never use a sewage pipe in Theodore, but we don’t oppose infrastructure being built there. Borrowing money to build infrastructure is not the same as borrowing money to run day to day operations.

One area of Capital Metro that ACT Light Rail and Jeremy Hanson agree on is the poor site chosen for the Park and Ride to service the Capital Metro. Current plans indicate it will be located next to the Mitchell Resource Transfer facility. Locating the Gungahlin area park and Ride in Mitchell is not a good idea. Once a driver from Nicholls reaches Mitchell, human nature dictates they will continue driving to their destination. It would be better to build a multi storey carpark in the Gungahlin Town Centre at either end of Hibberson Street with the ground floor dedicated to retail and services that commuters would need. A well designed park and ride could service current Gungahlin retail parking requirements and future transport driven parking demand.

Jeremy Hanson also observed that in his recent campaigning for the Liberals in Canberra, only one person had spoken to him about light rail. He see’s no political advantage in supporting it, and doesn’t believe a pro light rail position would enhance the Liberal vote in any way. He believe that voters want two cars per family and a double car garage, that they love their cars and aren’t interested in public transport or light rail. He points to the 8% public transport patronage figure to support this belief.

This belief will cost the Liberal Party votes as the population of the Northbourne Avenue-Flemington Road corridor increasingly densifies, as the opportunity for that is created by a proper mass transit technology in light rail. The voters choosing to live near public transport are more likely to be able to have a one car family and live in a medium to high density housing form that is not a suburban block with a standalone home and a double garage.

Policy differentiation does matter to voters and the Labor Party capitalized on this last year with the initial Capital Metro proposal. A single Green MLA determining government forced the ALP into bringing forward a plan that may not have survived four years of majority Labor government in the territory. The differentiation in policy here is clear – the ALP had public transport policy, the Canberra Liberals do not.

Politicians need to stop viewing public transport as a social service and view it as an alternative to the private car. Once they share this mindset, they will understand that investment in transport infrastructure does not disadvantage drivers to the advantage of public transport users, it provides an advantage to all.  

The Canberra Liberals have legitimate concerns over the ability of the current government to deliver the Capital Metro project on budget and on time, as it does not have a good record of major project delivery. The other objections are ideological and need revisiting. The management of a four billion dollar economy provides the Territory with opportunities to satisfy all areas of public need from hospitals to transport and everything in between. Delaying a much needed modal shift to light rail is not in the long term interests of the territory and would lead to lost opportunities to redevelop Northbourne Avenue, increasing road congestion and a loss of productivity that will continue to grow.

Last year they had the opportunity through their Infrastructure Canberra policy proposal to develop a coordinated leadership role in Canberra’s growth. Their current opposition to Capital Metro needs to be revisited as it will not be viable at the next Assembly election, when the construction work for light rail along Northbourne will have begun in earnest, and contracts for rolling stock and depot construction will have been signed.

Jeremy Hanson did point out that ultimately the Canberra Liberals support or opposition to light rail would be a policy decision, not a political decision. ACT Light Rail believe that the Canberra Liberals are on the wrong side of politics and policy on this matter, and the votes that are won by investing in an integrated public transport network will go to the parties that support and promote a livable city for all residents, not just those forced by location and economic necessity to be a two car family due to a lack of public transport alternatives.

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