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In defence of Sydney's Westconnex Motorway

By John Muscat - posted Wednesday, 8 November 2017


The acrimonious battle over Australia's largest motorway may be a case study in how class conflict plays out across the 'post-industrial' metropolis. On one side, inner-urban gurus of 'liveability' and 'sustainability' envisage a string of high-amenity havens for professionals in the weightless knowledge economy. On the other, a more dispersed population of workers in the material world of freight production, delivery and storage need efficient connections between a range of scattered industries and transportation hubs.

In Sydney's case the flashpoint is Westconnex, a new motorway completing 33 kilometres of 'missing links' around eastern reaches of the Orbital Motorway Network, currently in early stages of construction. One section swerves over parts of the city's gentrified inner-south and inner-west. Resistance from a coalition of local residents, municipal politicians, academics, anti-mobility activists and inner-city based media has been vehement and implacable.

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The 2012 New South Wales Long Term Transport Master Plan ("Long Term Plan"), amongst other documents, sets out the NSW Government's basic case for the project. "With Sydney growing, we need to fill the missing gaps", says the plan, "a fully connected motorway network will be the cornerstone of a free flowing road network." This sounds like a platitude but it expresses the fundamental point. Orbital motorways are otherwise known as ring-roads, loops and circumferential highways. The words 'orbital', 'ring', 'loop' and 'circumference' suggest a complete circle or circuit. Motorists can circulate faster and more freely around a whole metropolitan region without entangling themselves in the arterial road or street system. Intersections, traffic lights and cross-streets ('at-grade crossings') are replaced by overpasses and underpasses while interchange ramps facilitate entrances and exits.

Many of the world's leading cities would be dysfunctional without their orbitals. Imagine London with no M25, Boston with no Route 128, Washington DC with no Capital Beltway, Atlanta with no Perimeter, Vienna with no Ringstrasse or Paris with no Pèriphèrique.

The question is whether Sydney – which, as we are repeatedly told, claims 'global city' status – should have an orbital motorway or not. Though successful and indispensable, the existing 110 kilometre network is more semi-circle than circle. By the 1980's it was clear that earlier plans to build a radial motorway network centred on the CBD were inconsistent with Sydney's decentralized growth. The genesis of today's orbital lies in the then Department of Main Roads' 1987 report Roads 2000, which shifted the focus to a cross-suburban system.

Running laterally over south-western parts of metropolitan Sydney, M5 South West opened in 1992, followed by M2 Hills laterally north-west in 1993, M4 West laterally centre-west in 1997, and M7 Westlink vertically down the western edge in 2005. But there's no vertical M4-M5 link down the eastern side.

One of Westconnex's more strident critics, Mark Standen of Sydney University, claims it was pushed onto the Long Term Plan by "wealthy directors and shareholders of private toll road corporations … whose sole objective was to increase profits through the expansion of Sydney's toll road network". But the original proposals always included further motorways to close the loop, M4 East and M5 East. That these projects stalled had more to do with cynical politics than transportation analysis. The routes passed through gentrified inner-western electorates held by powerful figures of the Labor Government in office between 1995 and 2011. Plans for M4 East were exhibited in 2003 and quietly shelved.

By general consensus, the motorways bestow immense benefits on Sydney in travel time and vehicle operating cost savings, improved access, and reduced accidents. According to an estimate for Infrastructure Australia, their economic contribution to NSW as at 2008 was $22.7 billion. They were a factor in the city's post-globalisation rise to world stature. Only a few anti-mobility ideologues or eco-extremists would claim the M4, M5, M2 and M7 are a net cost and should be decommissioned. The case for completing the integrated system of which they were always envisaged to be constituent parts should be self-evident.

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Anti-motorway activists cling to the delusion that public transport can handle future transport needs, especially light and metro rail. On basic population, traffic and freight projections alone, however, Sydney's road network faces escalating demands over coming decades. Reports like the Long Term Plan, the 2012 State Infrastructure Strategy ("SIS") and more recently the Westconnex Updated Strategic Business Case ("Updated Business Case") note that Sydney is expected to gain an extra 1.6 million people and 600,000 jobs by 2031 (though there's debate on whether this rate of growth is desirable).

Over that time, the total number of daily trips will increase by 31 per cent from 16 million to 21 million. Morning peak hour car trips are forecast to jump from 9 million in 2011 to 13 million in 2036. Overall, private car trips are expected to grow 27 per cent by 2032. Yet roads will continue to support the same 75 per cent of all weekday trips.

"In complex metropolitan areas with a multiplicity of journey origins and destinations", explains the SIS, "there is often no realistic alternative to the car for many journeys". Some 60 per cent of Sydney's jobs are dispersed outside of defined metropolitan centres, and of the six 'most constrained strategic corridors' identified in the Long Term Plan, 'Parramatta to the CBD via Strathfield' implicates the M4 and 'Liverpool to Sydney Airport' implicates the M5.

As the closest motorway to Port Botany and Sydney Airport, Westconnex will also be instrumental – together with Sydney Gateway – in connecting these major transport hubs to the rest of the orbital network. Sydney's annual road freight movements of 11.2 billion tonne-kilometres will grow by 67 per cent to 18 billion in 2030, says the Long term Plan. Container throughput at Port Botany is growing at an annual rate of 6 to 7 per cent. While 1.7 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent unit) were transported on roads to and from the port in 2012, around 2.7 million are expected next year.

In the case of Sydney Airport, today's 36 million passengers and 656,000 tonnes of cargo a year will blow out to 77 million passengers and 1.5 million tonnes by 2035.

The road mode share of the NSW state freight task is around 63 per cent, staying at around 59 per cent in 2031 (but higher if you exclude the special case of rail transported coal). Only 14 per cent of container movements through Port Botany went by rail in 2011. "Even under optimistic projections of modal shift to rail", finds the SIS, "road will remain the dominant mode for Port Botany freight traffic." Road transport has an inherent cost advantage for short haul cargo due to rail's high fixed costs. And in NSW, 85 per cent of container movements are within the Sydney metropolitan region.

Much of this freight traffic is generated by Sydney's new industrial heartland. In the wake of higher land values and the apartment boom, as much as 93 per cent of vacant industrial land is now located on the western fringe. Many logistics, warehouse and manufacturing operators are relocating to that region. Located some 50 kilometres west of the CBD, for instance, the Western Sydney Employment Area encompasses 10,700 hectares of zoned industrial lots. Research by consultancy Urbis and the Urban Development Institute of Australia NSW highlights the importance of systemic road connections like Westconnex for the viability of industrial development on the periphery.

Need for the motorway is a function of Sydney's particular geography. Major transport gateways like Port Botany and Sydney Airport and some areas of high job density are on the eastern seaboard while the city expands inland and westward.

For a time, critics of Westconnex focused on haranguing the government to release the Updated Business Case. Made public in November 2015, it disclosed a Cost Benefit Ratio of 1.71 or a return of $1.71 for every dollar invested. Vehicle kilometres travelled in 2031 were forecast to rise by 600,000 but Westconnex would reduce vehicle hours travelled by 110,000. The Long Term Plan had estimated a cut in travel times on the M4 and M5 by up to 35 minutes.

The Updated Business Case was later reviewed by well-regarded consultants SGS Economics and Planning for Lord Mayor Clover Moore, whose jurisdiction covers inner-city residents near the route. Two broad objections stand out amongst their criticisms of its assumptions and calculations. First, "building major new motorways is not a solution that other similarly congested cities are implementing", which seems an odd endorsement of policy by imitation. Cities are very much a product of their unique history, demography and geography. Second, the estimates of travel time savings fail to "assess the impact of induced demand". This concept is increasingly prevalent in discussions of transport planning, and often used by pro-transit urbanists to demand a blanket prohibition of all highway expansion. Other traffic management options are simply ignored. Here the Long Term Plan considers 'induced demand' in its true context:

It is sometimes argued that building new roads is a futile exercise since within a few years, the road network will be as congested as it was before …

… new roads are not primarily required to increase journey speeds for existing users in peak hours (a common definition of congestion). Rather new roads provide the capacity needed for a growing population and economy … Accordingly, a reduction in journey times in peak periods is desirable, but the first task is to maintain existing performance standards and reliability levels as traffic grows.

In the last twenty years, traffic volumes on the [Sydney road network] have grown by approximately 50 per cent, while travel speeds in the peak periods have remained broadly stable. The new roads built in the last two decades were the minimum required to maintain quality of network service and meet growth requirements.

Anti-Westconnex campaigners and their media supporters – who, according to one survey, represent just 12 per cent of NSW voters – also like to push governance issues that they hope will discredit and ultimately scuttle the project. Whether the proposed toll regime is too high and unevenly distributed across the orbital network; whether tunnel ventilation stacks are too large and badly located; whether owners of resumed land are receiving due process and fair compensation; whether the corporation set up to build and sell a stake in the motorway is transparent or accountable enough; whether the sale and financing model entails risks for taxpayers; and whether business case, tender and procurement processes comply with key principles.

Of course, these are legitimate questions of public policy and administration. The government must take them seriously. But they don't strike at the fundamental rationale for Westconnex as transport infrastructure.

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This article was first published in the New City.



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About the Author

John Muscat is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

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