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Sydney’s transport and land use blunders

By Robert Gibbons - posted Wednesday, 5 July 2017

When Malcolm Turnbull took the Federal Government's helm, he said that he would restore the integrity of Infrastructure Australia, that there is no place for ideology in modal choices (cars or trams or buses or trams or double-deckers or metros or cycling ...), and that he wanted to see innovation (as well as Jobs & Growth).

The background included the Abbott Government's dislike of non-freeway options; and NSW's history of kneejerk "decisions". The best statements on the latter were from the Council of Australian Governments, the Planning Institute and the Property Council, and two now-former Premiers Barry O'Farrell (NSW, top 2 below) and Jeff Kennett (Victoria):

  • Labor had produced a "fiasco" and that "No boardroom, or CEO in the private sector would be permitted to get away with such incompetence".
  • We will put an end to the stench that has surrounded [decision-making] for more than a decade during which [ideas] were drawn up on the back on envelopes before media conferences ...not ... the actual needs of the taxpayers, citizens and our economy.
  • Jeff Kennettin 2010, "A new government must be elected to end - once and for all – the poisonous culture of self-interest that exists among the majority of personnel that make up the currentNSW government".

The Liberal/Nationals Coalition was elected in 2011 and for a while that "stench" receded. Then in 2012 it came back with a vengeance. The second cycle saw the professional and lobby groups, iA and all mainstream media and political parties falling in line with an alternative vision which eschewed accepted assessment approaches including rejecting "options". They have defied so many respected views that a regional plan is needed before projects are considered – a point made regularly in 2009 and by Nick Greiner in 2013.

Economics has tools for comparing and contrasting options, especially benefit/cost analyses which bring all future costs and revenues to (say) 2017 dollars by applying an inverse interest rate (the discount rate, often 7% p.a.).

As in life, bad inputs and missing data mean "garbage in/garbage out". The worst of the bad inputs are ideological obsessions which lead to waste, distortions, untruths and contempt for community opinions. Examples of the lack of option-testing include:

  • The demolition of 50 or so tall buildings and the "straightening" of suburban platforms (with herding of passengers – in quiet areas, changing our culture without electoral mandate!) where a different vehicle would have made both unnecessary. It took almost 3 years for the Metromeisters to realise they couldn't run on the long-promised link to the Illawarra and that their trains needed straight platforms – a most unimpressive performance
  • People in the NorthWest have been waiting for the all-bells-and-whistles Metro when tram/trains could have been running years ago
  • The Bankstown line (lowest priority in all assessments) was chosen over the East Hills line (highest priority) for Metro extension without any justification except a clever carton in 2009 which implied a boozy Labor lunch
  • Labor's Metromaniacs cancelled the Anzac Metro without known justification which would have been running by now – and are talking about bringing it back!

iA rightly says in its national plans that commonsense should prevail:

Prior to investment decisions, governments should define the problem that needs to be addressed. Problems are identified through long-term integrated infrastructure planning and the analysis of strategic data sources .... early project development studies should then proceed. These include:

  • Strategic options assessments: demonstrate the nature and scale of the problem(s) and identify solutions ...;
  • Feasibility studies: undertake engineering, environmental and economic assessments to develop solutions into fully-scoped projects; and
  • Project business cases: provide more detailed economic assessments, including cost-benefit analysis.

These studies help ensure the right infrastructure solution is selected and that benefits to the community are maximised.

Dr Kerry Schott's NSW Commission of Audit emphasised the practical necessity:

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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