Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Simon Corbell: The case for light rail

In todays Canberra Times, Simon Corbell, Minister for the Capital Metro Agency, has a powerful defence of light rail in Canberra.

The CT also carries a story: Light rail benefits more than just cost.

Rail network has proven its benefits worldwide

We are fortunate that Griffin provided us with a legacy of extreme foresight; a planned city linked by 'rapid transit' – his own term – with higher densities of retail, employment and development lining the transport system. We have the wide avenues in place and the designs drawn; the framework for a city wide tramway has been ready and waiting for the past hundred years.

Unfortunately, until today we have ignored Griffin's transport advice and plans. Politicians have debated the cost of installing Griffin's railway and tramway system for one hundred years, always deciding it was an unjustifiable cost until Canberra grew; we are having the same conversations now. Canberra has grown, will continue to grow and public transport investment is clearly imperative for the success and sustainability of our city.

A recent article, one of the many by ill-informed 'experts' advising that Canberra is making a mistake by investing in light rail, said that "smart people learn from their mistakes, smarter people learn from the mistakes of others". On this point, we agree. We do need to learn from the mistakes of others and we do not need to look very far.

In the PricewaterhouseCoopers Cities of Opportunity 2014 survey 30 cities were analysed across 10 indicators, Sydney's only 'low' grading was on transportation and infrastructure. And what is Sydney's response? Investment in rail. The NSW government has signalled its strong support for rail projects through the 2014 budget, with the North West Rail link, South West Rail Link, $400 million for the Parramatta Light Rail, $1.6 billion for the CBD and South East Light Rail route and a further $2.8 billion for new state of the art intercity trains.

The lesson to learn from our nearest city neighbour is that congestion is a major social, economic and environmental issue that must be solved. In the Territory, we have a choice: we can start addressing transport issues now at a relatively low cost, or we can wait until congestion, pollution and poor accessibility cripples our city and pay a much higher price.

Congestion was costing the Territory $110 million a year back in 2005, and is projected to increase by 82per cent to $200 million in 2020 (BTRE 2007). During peak travel times, road congestion already adds approximately 15 minutes to the travel along the city to Gungahlin corridor.

With a population set to almost double by 2050 and a car dependency rate of more than 80 per cent, the costs of congestion will only continue to increase. Introducing light rail is projected to halve corridor congestion immediately, providing travel benefits to road users and a frequent and reliable service for public transport users.

Without investment in light rail, Canberra's transportation expenditure is heavily skewed to roads-only expenditure. The proposed investment in light rail over the next four years compares with the total cost of 'Roads and Sustainable Transport' between 2010 and 2014 of $1.13 billion. On a like-for-like basis (in 2013-14), and acknowledging their different funding sources, the capital delivery cost of the proposed investment in light rail (excluding contingency and rolling stock) is anticipated to be less than road investments in the Majura Parkway plus Gungahlin Drive Extension. After decades of under investment, with public transport infrastructure receiving less than an estimated 10 per cent of the investment in road infrastructure (estimated by TAMS, ACT government), it is time to restore the balance.

On the issue of balance, we need to discuss the benefits as well as costs of light rail. The economic analysis of the light rail projects – or the Benefit Cost Ratios (BCR) – was first developed back in 2011 for the Infrastructure Australia submission on the City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor. If we maintain the same land-use along the corridor the BCR was estimated 1.02. If we increase residential and commercial density along the rapid transit corridors (as suggested by Griffin and set out in the Territory's Planning Strategy) the BCR is 2.34; to clarify that is a return of $2.34 on every dollar invested.
Compare this to the recently opened light rail extension to Sydney's Dulwich Hill that was approved with a BCR of 1.0. The extension was oversubscribed in its first week of operation and surrounding land values increased significantly, the outcome is more investment by Sydney in light rail.

Transport investment projects BCRs can vary significantly, even for a single project depending on the options, assumptions and impacts included. The Capital Metro Agency will make the latest BCR as accurate as possible and it will inform the government's decision, but let's ensure a BCR is used as a tool to guide decisions; not the panacea to govern all decisions.

It is true that the benefit cost ratio for bus rapid was higher than for light rail – but there are important benefits beyond economic return that a BCR does not consider. And importantly in Canberra's case, the light rail project Capital Metro is not just a public transport project – it is the glue that holds together the city's urban renewal plans.
Light rail has a proven ability to attract investment, businesses and people. The land around light rail stops increases in value due to the benefits associated with this mode of transport – this is a researched and well evidenced phenomenon. In Curtin University research on Perth's BRT, there was no evidence that buses have the same economic effect. This can be explained by the perception that buses and bus lanes are not seen as permanent fixtures; routes can change, lanes can be reallocated back to normal traffic as soon as congestion creates public pressure. Tracks in the ground are a permanent fixture that gives investor confidence. Often commercial development happens before the light rail is even open, like the Minneapolis-St Paul new 'green line' light rail, where more than $1 billion was invested in projects along the route before the trams even started running. More investment and business in the city's core will be good for all of Canberra.
There is also the way that light rail can integrate with the surrounding areas, a busway would need to have barriers and be segregated, this would act as a divisive structure within the important Northbourne Corridor, splitting communities and turning this important gateway into a bus and car thoroughfare.

Light rail can blend with urban areas and bring communities together as shown in Burke Street in Melbourne and throughout the cities in Europe. Maybe this is why people demonstrate a preference for light rail, and why it is the only public transport mode that can attract 20 per cent of its passengers directly out of cars. It is clear that we need to reduce our car dependence for a multitude of health, environmental and economic reasons. More buses are unlikely to tempt Canberrans out of their cars.

An additional benefit that should be discussed is the potential to provide new and sustainable jobs for the Territory. Jobs that are not public sector and that will be accessible to young Canberrans and the long-term unemployed. The Territory is already identifying skills shortages and introducing training opportunities to increase employment opportunities created through its light rail investment.

During the construction phase, EY analysis estimates that more than 3500 direct and indirect jobs will be supported. Future mapping across a 30-year period indicates that around 50,000 jobs will be supported. At a time when youth unemployment is high and public service jobs are being cut, this is an important contribution to diversifying and strengthening employment opportunities for all of Canberra.

And last but not least there are the huge environmental benefits of reducing car dependence. Twenty-three per cent of the Territory's carbon emissions are from transport, compare this to the national average of 14 per cent. All the world's cities need to act now to stop the upward trend in vehicle emissions; investment in light rail will help us play our part.

Many of the major challenges we face as a growing city point to the same solution: a well-integrated public transport network with light rail at its core – more roads and more buses have not, and will not, solve the problems we face.

I do not ask you to make your mind up now on light rail. What I do ask is that you keep an open mind and weigh up the benefits as well as the costs. Let's learn from the past and others, finally listen to Griffin's advice and invest in the future of our great and unique city.

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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