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In defence of Sydney's Westconnex Motorway

By John Muscat - posted Wednesday, 8 November 2017


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.

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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.

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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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All articles by John Muscat

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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