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IT was bad enough that Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s dumb idea of a tram down George Street was embraced by a government with more cash than common sense.
But to stuff up the execution just adds insult to injury for long-suffering Sydneysiders.
Plagued by delays and cost overruns, now Barry O’Farrell’s $1.6 billion white elephant is heading to the NSW Supreme Court, and there is no end in sight for the poor business owners and residents along its route.
Spanish subcontractor Acciona reportedly is demanding an extra $1.2 billion on top of the $500 million they’ve already extracted from the Berejiklian government for what may end up the world’s most expensive light-rail line stretching 12km from Circular Quay to Kensington and Randwick.
The subcontractors are reportedly now on a go-slow, and despite the Premier’s protestations that she won’t be “held to ransom”, the longer the ill-fated project staggers on, the worse her election prospects.
And what do we get for all the pain? The city split in two, our longest street impassable for four years and forever alienated from cars, when it used to take 25 per cent of the traffic in the CBD.
The light rail will run on a route that was perfectly well serviced by buses, which at least are flexible and can be put away when not in use
And a lot of commuters in Randwick and Kingsford, who used to be able to catch one bus to Central, will have to get out of a tram and onto a bus or a train to complete their journey, anyway.
But the biggest losers are the thousands of small business owners along the route from Surry Hills to Randwick.
Angela Vithoulkas says the light rail has been a “horror story” for over three four years. Her cafe on George and King Streets was once on one of the busiest intersections in Sydney. As many as 50,000 people an hour used to walk past Café Vivo during peak hour, and you only need a percentage to drop in for a coffee to make those pre-dawn openings worthwhile.
On Anzac Day she’d sell 6000 sandwiches. But since George Street has been reduced to a construction zone, she’s lost 45 per cent of her business.
“I have gone from being one of the most awarded cafes in Sydney to a joke.”
The Sydney City Councillor was promised it would take just six to nine months for her “zone” to be built and after that the construction would move on to the next zone and she could continue as normal. But the construction never moved from outside her front door.
“I’ve been barricaded on a corner where you cannot see my cafe unless you fall over it. I have no foot traffic or passers-by and I’m vandalised on a regular basis because it’s all dark and quiet.”
For other small businesspeople she knows along the tram route, hairdressers, cafe and convenience store owners, she says it’s been even worse. Some have lost 90 per cent of their business, lost their homes, and plunged into depression.
George Street cafe owner Angela Vithoulkas says her takings have been affected by light rail work. (Pic: Danny Aarons)“They’re ashamed and embarrassed,” she said. “They feel they’ve let down their families. I know people who have tried to commit suicide. They never thought they would be abandoned by the government in this way. They never thought it would get this bad … The extent of the depression among these small business owners is scary.”
It was a stupid idea in the first place. Sydney got rid of trams 70 years ago to ease traffic congestion. Unlike Melbourne, our beautiful streets are just too narrow.
The fantasy of George Street as a bustling pedestrian boulevard is the sort of dehumanising central planning the Soviets would applaud.
And why would anyone listen to any brainwave from Clover Moore, the architect of the other single biggest source of traffic congestion in the city — empty, over engineered bike lanes, which no self-respecting commuter-cyclist uses.
This was all predicted. The NSW Auditor-General two years ago issued a damning forecast of a half billion dollar blowout in construction costs to $2.1 billion and a further $1 billion blowout in operating costs over the next 15 years. All that and more is coming to pass.
Furthermore, in 2015, I wrote about leaked traffic modelling by the former Roads and Traffic Authority which found that trams in the Sydney CBD would add considerably to traffic congestion.
Back in 1908-1909, the Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and its Suburbs already knew this fact, and warned “tramways cause congestion,” and recommended building a train network instead.
Forty years later, with Sydney’s traffic still snarled, three British transport experts were commissioned to find a solution.
“To improve the general amenities of the city of Sydney, the tramcars should be replaced by buses,” said their report.
And so they were. Until some genius decided not to learn the lessons of history.
We’d be better off biting the bullet now rather than waiting another 70 years, cutting our losses, paving over the whole mess, replanting the trees, and giving George Street back to cars and buses. Better than staggering on for decades pretending this is a good piece of infrastructure.
This article first appeared on www.dailytelegraph.com.au
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