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Talk of abandoning major rail investment, such as the North West Metro, to fix a temporary drop in state revenue is foolhardy.
Sydney's number one challenge is transport - mainly public transport - and the city's transport system is out of equilibrium.
In the 10 years from 1997 to 2007, the Carr/Iemma governments completed five motorways - the Eastern Distributor, the M7, the M5 East, the Cross City Tunnel and the Lane Cove tunnel - a total of 62 new kilometres. This substantial investment in roads greatly exceeded any comparable prior period.
But since 1930, the rail network has barely expanded, despite Sydney's population increasing from 1.3 million to 4.3 million. (Extensions included the partial Eastern Suburbs railway opened in 1979, East Hills to Glenfield in 1987, and the Airport Link in 2000.)
Congestion is manageable only when people have transport choices. All political parties have been responsible for the under-investment in rail for the 60 years until 2003. There are a number of persistent causes of this.
The first is that economic infrastructure, especially public transport, has to compete for funding in the annual budget process against hospitals, schools and other social infrastructure. This process invariably is dominated by short-term considerations.
Critical infrastructure needs stable funding sources, such as tied revenue sources. State Treasury hates this because it loses control, but in the long term it means the state doesn't have to play catch-up with its transport network.
Secondly, few understand how much transport influences land use patterns. Transport leads land use. Once an expressway or railway is built, it is easy to change the zoning and development laws to increase the population along the corridor. As the M7 showed, land values quickly respond to new routes.
Thirdly, many of the exponents of the "market uber alles" religion don't believe in public transport, and nor do many ideologues in Treasury. Treasury repeatedly tried to scuttle the north west rail link, and it's been trying to scuttle the North West Metro ever since it was conceived. Its bureaucrats simply don't see that individual market players will not procure long-term infrastructure because of its higher risk.
Public transport, almost invariably, requires public subsidy. But it is an essential economic cost of running a successful metropolis. It is a mathematical fact that roads and private cars alone cannot service a major city's transport needs.
Equally important, an extensive modern rail mass transit system boosts housing supply. Inaccessible parts of the Sydney basin are languishing with depressed land values and house prices. People choose where to live on the basis of access and amenity, and access to many parts of Western Sydney is inferior to many other parts of the city.
That is why we need a network of fast transit routes throughout greater Sydney. We need not one metro but several more: west to well beyond Parramatta, to the south east, and to the south west.
We probably need more like $40 billion over the next 25 years, rather than $12 billion for one metro. Only then will Sydney's growth be sustainable.
A North West Metro, run by the private sector, is a good start. Similar to those in Washington, Madrid, London and South Korea, its cost is less and its service superior to the north west rail link. It would give 50 per cent more people easy access, with 14 new stations rather than seven. More frequent services, shorter travel times, greater efficiency and the likely full recovery of operating costs, rather than only about 25 per cent for the current system. Some metros overseas, such as Copenhagen's, even recover capital costs.
It is more than another rail line. It represents cultural change, a distinct rail system not dependent on the fiefdoms within Railcorp.
It can also help to reduce carbon emissions. The Federal Government should understand real reductions in carbon cannot rely solely on an emissions trading scheme. Significant investment in public transport would help reduce carbon dioxide emissions in a tangible way, while helping housing supply and affordability.
I have little time for the view that the short-term downturn in property revenues means we should cut long-term projects. This happens from time to time with state budgets. It should be dealt with as a short-term issue, not by cutting vital long-term infrastructure.
We are told that the state's debt levels are reaching unacceptable proportions. Yet we know the state net debt as a proportion of gross state product in 1992 was 14.3 per cent, yet today it is only 6.2 per cent. And even in 2012 it will only reach 9.1 per cent. Some crisis.
Let's not be conned by salivating economic rationalists. Let's keep our eyes on the prize: meeting Sydney's long-term transport needs. More than anything else, this will provide for future prosperity and sustainability.
Frank Sartor is the member for Rockdale, the former NSW minister for planning and former lord mayor of Sydney.
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