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The ACT Government says it will plough on with its plan to extend Canberra's light rail line to Woden, even though it is yet to gain Commonwealth endorsement of its route.
Instead, it aims to get commuters about one-seventh of the way there. It will add an extra 1.7 kilometres from the existing Alinga Street stop, loop through the city's west (elevating London Circuit on the way), and end just short of Lake Burley Griffin at Commonwealth Park.
One might ask: what's the point?
The Government's own business case estimates that, for every dollar spent on this extension, the direct public benefit, particularly in reducing traffic congestion, will be just 40 cents.
Even when broader economic gains are considered — such as improved business links and higher land values — the estimated return is just 60 cents per dollar.
By comparison, the community's return on building the Gungahlin-to-City line was estimated to be about $1.20 for every dollar — and even that ratio was low for a large infrastructure project.
EMBED: The ACT's light rail stage 2A extension
Sense beyond the centsNonetheless, not all public benefits can be measured. As former ACT transport minister Simon Corbell put it, "City building is about more than simply economic logarithms."
The most obvious benefit is the whole — linking with Woden — rather than this small part. On that, the business case argues that, when considering the entire, finished network from north to south, the benefits "exceed the costs" — though only just.
Yet beyond those calculations are other considerations.
One is the prospect of the ACT losing the expertise it gained while the first light rail stage was built.
The ACT Government's protracted negotiations — and disagreements — with the National Capital Authority over the stage two route — including how to get across the lake and through the parliamentary zone — have already pushed back earlier, aspirational, completion dates.
Further delays would likely result in Canberra's rail workforce leaving for jobs on the vast amount of projects about to begin in New South Wales and Victoria.
No better time to buildAnother factor is timing: with interest rates extremely low, borrowing money now is akin to borrowing money at no cost.
This is partly why most Australian governments, including the ACT's, announced large capital investment programs in their 2019 budgets.
However, Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe said in July that even this increased activity wouldn't be enough to stimulate a slowing economy: he wants governments to borrow and build more.
Remember the southThe ACT Government could, of course, extend the light rail elsewhere — to Belconnen or the airport, for example.
After all, the federal government agency Infrastructure Australia doesn't rate the City-to-Woden light rail as a high priority for Canberra. It says a more urgent problem is the lack of public transport linking Belconnen and Queanbeyan to central Canberra.
At some point, however, the Government must stem the divide between fast-growing north Canberra and the ageing, slower-developing south.
Without far better transport links, Woden and Tuggeranong's economies will continue to be sluggish, even shrink. Employers, particularly federal government departments, will be reluctant to invest in the southern town centres given that more of the workers they need will live in the higher-density north.
Heading south is also good politics, not that that's necessarily what drove Chief Minister Andrew Barr's decision.
The 2016 ACT election suggested strongly that voters wanted light rail: Gungahlin swung clearly towards the Labor Government while the south, which wasn't getting it, turned away.
When stage one was completed, the Canberra Liberals scuppered their opposition to the network. Passenger numbers are now well above expectations.
But while few are asking "why build it?" any more, other questions linger.
One is why this extension wasn't planned and signed off years ago, along with stage one. After all, delays with the National Capital Authority were foreseeable.
Also, with the authority yet to approve this 1.7-kilometre semi-extension — including its very significant changes to Commonwealth Avenue — will the Commonwealth even allow it happen?
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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