Moore / The troubled track ahead for light rail

“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,” says political columnist MICHAEL MOORE

030996 ACT Canberra Metro_140616_StillFrame_0012SORTING the chaff from the grain over light rail is quite a challenge.

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!

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5 Responses to “Moore / The troubled track ahead for light rail”

  1. Neil
    July 21, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    None of the O-Bahn route in Canberra would need to be elevated. Most of the Adelaide O-Bahn is not elevated (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O-Bahn_Busway). Electric busses on the O-Bahn would be a possibility.

    • Chris
      July 26, 2014 at 10:39 am #

      But it has to be elevated at every intersection as in Adelaide.

  2. Neil
    July 21, 2014 at 10:30 am #

    Capital Metro has staff experienced with the Adelaide O-Bahn busway. Why is an O-Bahn not at least being considered for Canberra? An O-Bahn would be considerably cheaper than the Tram and could be built in stages, Civic to Dickson, Dickson to Epic, Epic to Gungahlin, enabling the busses to be separated from the normal road traffic much sooner than waiting for the entire tram track to be completed. The O-Bahn could use the same route planned for the tram, so minimal rework of the plan would be required.

    What is the REAL motivation of Canberra Labor and Mr Rattenbury? Do they want a reliable and cost effective public transport system or do they want a customer for the renewable power stations planned to supply the city?

    Come on Mr Hanson release some viable options to this very expensive public transport proposal.

    • Chris
      July 21, 2014 at 11:39 am #

      Unfortunately an o-Bahn would not permit many, if any, stops on Northbourne Ave, as it is elevated and any stops would require lifts. How about 100% electric buses in their own lane with traffic light priority (needed for the trams anyway). At peak hour cars avoid the left lane, and off-peak the lane is not needed – we could make it a bus lane immediately.

  3. Chris
    July 2, 2014 at 6:15 pm #

    I don’t understand how Light Rail can be the preferred answer when making the left lane of Northbourne Avenue into a bus lane has not even been tried. It is almost as if they want to make the buses look bad. Seeing it will be 6 years before trams are running on Northbourne, and longer if no private equity is forthcoming, at least try a bus lane. The cost would only be some road paint.

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