Saturday, June 7, 2014

ACT light rail commitment will pay major dividends

(published in the Canberra Times, 6 June 2014)

The announcement in Tuesday's ACT budget of $21.3 million for the Capital Metro Agency is yet another positive commitment to light rail and improved public transport from the ACT government.

After a very slow start in staffing the Capital Metro Agency, and months of silence between public announcements, it is clear that behind the scenes the Capital Metro Agency staff are working away on engineering, financing and planning projects.

Into these long silences, the Canberra Liberals have been injecting doubt about the project into the public discussion.

At the last Assembly election both Labor and the Greens had light rail policies and the Canberra public were aware what they would get if the Greens/Labor government was returned. The Canberra Liberals had no public transport policy at that election, and have no public transport policy now.

The main attack on Capital Metro seems to focus on the cost, and whether Canberra really needs better public transport. The other claim is that the light rail project is a form of indulgence to keep Green MLA Shane Rattenbury’s support in the Assembly. Both claims are wrong, and misplaced.

There is strong community support for light rail, and there has been for many years. It is a public transport concept that people realise can improve both public transport patronage and the future shape of Canberra.

There is also broad support for light rail from all three of Canberra’s major political parties; some Canberra Liberals are members of ACT Light Rail, a community group that has been campaigning for improved public transport in the Canberra region for more than a decade. When the Canberra Liberals publicly posture against the project, it is not a true representation of public support – it is naked politics.

Although the focus is on the cost of Capital Metro, little focus has been placed on the costs of not building this first stage of Canberra’s light rail: a continuing decline in public transport patronage, the productivity loss, the cost to families owning multiple cars, and the lost economic opportunity from using open space as car parking for 10 hours a day.

The opportunity to redevelop Northbourne Avenue, decrease congestion and guide higher density along transit corridors are compelling reasons for beginning the network between Gungahlin and Civic. In future, other parts of Canberra will benefit when the network is extended across the lake.

A nagging doubt in some people’s minds is the affordability of the light rail project. That needs to be put into perspective. The ACT has an economy of $4 billion a year and rising. The ACT government
has committed to a territory-wide infrastructure program that will total $2.5 billion over four years. The cost of Capital Metro is around $620 million, spread over three years. The initial phase of Capital Metro will include rolling stock and maintenance and stabling infrastructure – future extensions will be much cheaper.

Public transport is an infrastructure investment, which provides benefits to all sectors of the community. It is not a tired government's vanity project.  However, the model that the ACT
government selects to fund the project must be announced and it must be sold well to the public.  Mishandling this aspect will lead to long-term political headaches for the government.

Although the government has announced that it prefers a public-private partnership, several thought bubbles regarding levies and extra taxes have been floated through the media. The raising and handling of the money for this project will inevitably colour the public’s view of it. It is fair to say the ALP government has a somewhat chequered past when it comes to managing major projects.

Regardless of where the money to build light rail comes from, $600 million over three years is an affordable major project. It is about the same cost that is spent on ACT roads annually. Unlike the construction or repair of an ordinary road, the delivery of Capital Metro will have significant benefits to the Canberra economy and the quality of life of residents.

The Liberal and Labor federal governments have preferred not to invest in ACT public transport infrastructure. The current federal government wants to invest in the "roads of the 21st century". The ACT should seize this opportunity to pay for its own public transport infrastructure and ask the federal government to pay for our roads. That is surely a proposal that would make the Canberra Liberals happy.

This year is a crucial year for the light rail project, as financing and engineering plans must both be finalised in order for construction to begin on schedule in early 2016. If properly managed the project can be delivered on time and on budget. By providing an extra $21 million for Capital Metro in this year's budget at least one tier of government is demonstrating that it is serious about Canberra’s transport requirements.

When we think of Canberra’s future we should think of a sophisticated city that is easy to move around, that offers easy access to our homes and public venues. The trips between the places we work and the places we live should be short and comfortable. Both the private car and better public transport are the key to this, not one or the other.

As declining public transport patronage rates show, we have outgrown the ability of a bus-only public transport system to move us around. The ACT government realises this and is working on a better system, that is scalable, for our future.

Our city is growing and we need to choose whether we are a city designed for people, or the private car. A well-run light rail network will be the backbone of a liveable city. Canberra is not just another town in Australia, it is our nation's capital and it deserves world-class public transport, not five cars in each driveway.

Damien Haas is chairman of ACT Light Rail, the peak public transport lobby group in the Canberra region. Mr Haas is not a member of any party, but assisted Liberal candidate Matt Watts at the last Assembly election.

For more frequent updates on Capital Metro and light rail related news, please visit our Facebook page 'Light Rail for Canberra'.  

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