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GOVERNMENTS are obliged to be rigorous in spending public money. The NSW government has committed to lease the Port of Newcastle and direct almost half a billion dollars to terminating the rail line at Wickham with a light rail shuttle. Has this project been rigorously assessed?
Last year Newcastle lord mayor Jeff McCloy baulked at spending $7million on extensions to the Newcastle Art Gallery, claiming the project was not ‘‘shovel ready”. Is the Wickham project ‘‘shovel ready’’?
On the evidence of transport officials at the recent public forums, the Wickham interchange is still a work in progress, the light rail route is not yet fixed, the impacts of rail termination are still not worked through, and there is no plan for a future light rail network.
Traffic studies are ongoing and we await the Hunter Transport Plan to relate the Wickham project to the rest of the Hunter transport system.
Wickham has no reliable costing and there is no cost-benefit study to justify it as top priority for $500million of infrastructure spending.
Nevertheless, we are told that the cabinet will soon be making decisions and that the rail line will be cut before the March 2015 election. This does not sound like rigorous decision-making.
In fact, the whole process has been unsound. The Property Council backed by two state agencies – UrbanGrowth (the Mall) and the Hunter Development Corporation (Honeysuckle/Newcastle West) – have been allowed to do the ‘‘planning’’ and control the advice to government to their own benefit. They have massive conflicts of interest and no transport expertise.
As one transport official put it, we are managing ‘‘a transport solution to an urban regeneration problem’’. But is it a transport solution to slow down the public transport system and extend it one block further east to Pacific Park at a lesser frequency?
Here are some of the questions that need good answers:
1. Did Transport for NSW reject the option of a more central interchange at Woodville-Hamilton with more room for access roads, parking and associated facilities?
2. Trains take four minutes to Newcastle Station; a tram is expected to take nine minutes and run only about every 10minutes. How will this encourage people into the CBD?
3. On the evening return from the CBD, the delay from a missed train will be an hour to the Central Coast and overnight to Singleton or Dungog or by XPT. If people have to leave work earlier or wait longer, how will this be an improvement?
4. What will be the impact on the businesses in the CBD of a three-to-five-year interim interchange at Broadmeadow and Hamilton?
5. Will bus passengers from Eastlakes, Charlestown, The Junction, etc be obliged to transfer to the tram? And what about passengers from the Stockton ferry?
6. What bus, taxi, disabled, kiss-n-ride and park-n-ride access will be provided at the Wickham terminal?
7. How will traffic flow into and out of the Wickham interchange and what will be the impact on delay times at Stewart Avenue and along Hunter Street?
8. How will the new interchange/tram system cope at peak times with the estimated 4000 students using the new university campus?
9. What costings have been done for a busway instead of more expensive light rail/tram?
10. What feasibility studies have been done of ways to beautify the rail corridor while keeping the rail line open to Newcastle Station?
The property interest assures us that the future is all blue sky. The downside risk is that the inconvenience of enforced interchange and the disruption of construction will permanently harm patronage and business in the CBD. If costs blow out and patronage falls, the NSW government may not fulfil the promise of light rail but fall back on a busway or just conventional bus.
The opportunity cost of spending $500 million to subsidise development in Newcastle CBD will be worsening congestion elsewhere in the city because other priority projects are unfunded.
Fremantle in Western Australia is also a long peninsula with a harbour on one side and the city on the other. It achieved revitalisation by protecting its heritage, keeping its rail access to Perth, and using parking revenues to subsidise frequent loop buses. Won’t such a low-cost solution work in Newcastle?
At stake is the future of the Hunter, not just Newcastle CBD. The one-off funds from the lease of the Port of Newcastle, a regional asset, must be spent wisely for the whole region.
The government needs to get sound planning and transport advice not compromised by property interests. Before cutting the rail line, it should ensure that the project is ‘‘shovel ready’’ and justified by a robust cost-benefit study. Otherwise there is a huge risk that $500 million will be wasted.
This article first appeared on www.theherald.com.au
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