Greens’ Minister with responsibility for Territory and Municipal Services, Shane Rattenbury, whose party is ideologically married to alternatives to motor transport, has driven the Canberra Metro light rail project using his balance of power to ensure it proceeds.
The alternative view has been put by Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson and other Liberals that until the Territory’s Budget is under control this is simply the wrong priority.
The idea of having a sleek, modern tram initially bringing commuters from Gungahlin to Civic and then expanding to Woden, Tuggeranong and Belconnen seems a visionary project, a significant contribution to much-needed public works and an effective method of dealing with traffic issues and climate change.
However, with the cuts to the ACT through the Federal Budget there is an important question about whether Canberra can afford to implement the project at this time.
The government seeks to capitalise on the project as visionary identifying the growth in Gungahlin, the current traffic snags and the potential for much greater congestion.
The argument is that light rail is quieter than alternatives, is less polluting and has the potential to run entirely on renewable energy sources. The government continues to reassure the public that they have examined the budget for stage one of the light rail project and compares this cost to Majura Parkway, which alone will cost more than $300 million.
The response to questioning is to ask whether the financial concerns are about budget or are really more about reluctance to give public transport a priority.
Rattenbury is like a terrier with a bone, writing recently in “The Canberra Times”: “This light rail project has a strong foundation. We’ve been researching and planning for light rail for over 20 years.
“Over a decade ago a public transport study found light rail to be both ‘economically feasible and beneficial’ for the community. Two years ago, the 2012 design study on the Gungahlin to Civic transit corridor compared light rail and bus rapid transit options and concluded that light rail would generate ‘the best overall outcome for Canberra’.”
He was clearly feeling the mounting pressure of doubt over the financial viability.
The Liberals have been vigorous in their concern over the project’s costs. Opposition Transport spokesman Alistair Coe used a report from the Centre for International Economics (CIE) to cast further doubts.
He said: “In its review of the 2014-15 ACT Budget, the CIE highlights many actual and potential problems with the case for light rail. This is yet another independent expert publicising serious concerns about the viability of the project.”
Opposition Leader Hanson is more vigorous, calling light rail “a waste of taxpayers’ money” and landing what he considers poor decision making by the government on the challenges of minority government.
“The Government is pursuing light rail essentially to keep Shane Rattenbury in the Cabinet and keep Shane Rattenbury happy,” he said.
“That’s not a good enough reason to spend $614 million of taxpayers’ money.”
Hanson has already floated the notion of running the October 2016 Liberal election campaign around “no light rail”.
In May, the Liberals moved in the ACT Assembly a motion calling on the Government “to abandon the current light rail project but preserve the corridors for possible future use”.
This should not be seen as an ideological drive against public transport but rather the appropriate role of an opposition in challenging the real costs and timing associated with this project.
The Liberals point to much cheaper rapid bus alternatives while waiting for the ACT Budget to return to surplus. However, such an interim measure could also be challenged as a possible waste of money if the light rail is planned for the future anyway.
The light rail debate will not go away. It is partially driven by ideology but also by the need to solve looming transport issues. It has strong community support. But it is expensive.
This project illustrates very clearly the important role of an effective opposition in challenging government, in monitoring every aspect of what they do and in providing alternative policies. The outcome is still some way down the track!