Rosie Masthead

Are we on a road to nowhere with light rail?

Jodi Morrell

Just as paid parking had the entire Canberra populace up in arms, the proposed light rail system seems to have irritated and elated us in equal portions. With the Opposition leader, Jeremy Hanson, warning that the Liberals will scrap the light rail plan if the ACT Liberal Party wins government in 2016 the issue of light rail is likely to figure prominently in both parties’ electoral campaigns. What does this all mean for us, the voting public?

The ACT government has already announced its commitment to building a light rail link between Canberra’s CBD and Gungahlin as stage one of the project. Additional stages will roll out to include Belconnen, Woden and Tuggeranong. Bidders have also been asked to include further extensions to Russell and the airport with decisions to be made on the viability of these additional extensions based on cost.

Light rail in Canberra is an ambitious project for the ACT Labor Government, particularly with an election looming in 2016 and the opposition standing firmly and unquestioningly against the project. As the business case stands at the moment, shortlisted bidders will be announced in March 2015, with the successful company to be engaged and commence construction in 2016 and complete by 2019. Tram services are expected to begin by 2019, making the project a long term investment that risks losing them government (and a lot of taxpayer dollars) if it’s not managed well.

Why would the ACT government take such a risk? Canberra is a rapidly growing city with limited land resources to serve our increasing population. A significant increase in the development and construction of high density housing is working towards resolving the problem of where we are all going to live but our transport system remains in the dark ages and the current level of infrastructure is unlikely to be able to keep up with the rapid changes our city is experiencing. A coordinated and effective public transport system will alleviate the pressure on Canberra’s infrastructure and the ACT government has decided that modernising our city to improve services for the population is more important than remaining in office. That’s a big gamble.

Given the ACT government is prepared to risk so much to bring light rail to Canberra, there must be some significant benefits for us. The most immediately obvious benefit is that Canberra will finally have a coordinated, fully integrated public transport system and will no longer be so reliant on cars, roads and parking. Officials are working in conjunction with the development of the project to produce a city-wide master plan which will link the light rail with buses and provide improved transport across Canberra.

Unfortunately, the way our transport system works at the moment is not sustainable long term if our city keeps growing at current rates. Fossil fuels cannot drive transport indefinitely and land is a finite resource that we are rapidly running out of. Bus routes are limited to following roads, not only limiting the routes available but making buses subject to traffic conditions. This contributes to congestion and the suggestion of creating allocated bus lanes will increase congestion while remaining limited in the number of passengers that can be transported. Integrating light rail not only provides more route options, but has the potential to transport increased numbers of passengers without being subject to traffic conditions.

The implementation of light rail will alleviate many of these issues and take pressure off our existing infrastructure. Implementing paid parking has gone some way to easing the pressure on parking facilities throughout Canberra by forcing many of us onto buses and bikes, but these limited alternatives mean limited options. The limitations of the bus routes throughout the city result in a number of bus changes from home to work and extended commute times which force us into cars (and to pay for parking) for expediency. Adding light rail to our domestic transport network has the potential to transform the way we travel around our city and make it more accessible. Light rail will also create less road traffic and promote street life. This increased street traffic has the potential to create new business opportunities throughout Canberra, which in turn will promote increased investment and growth. Light rail has the potential to change how Canberra grows and make it more efficient.

Light rail lines along Canberra’s main transport routes were first imagined by our city’s designers to connect our satellite suburbs to each other. Building more roads and running more buses will always be the cheaper option but fails to address the infrastructure and congestion issues currently facing transport in Canberra. Throughout the world cities have chosen to implement light rail because they want a combination of good public transport and the urban transformation that accompanies such development. Simply adding new bus routes will not serve to stimulate development the way light rail will as light rail stations are fixed in place and stimulate economic activity and property prices in the areas immediately around them.

Given these positives around light rail, what are the potential negatives? The biggest one, of course, is the expense. Building light rail throughout Canberra risks investing huge sums of money to build facilities that may not be able to pay for themselves for some time.

The limited land that Canberra has to work with is also a point against the implementation of light rail. We’re a very small city and it’s possible our needs could be met solely through the use of bus routes if they were formatted properly and geared towards user requirements. If we can create bus routes that can essentially do what the light rail proposes, connecting our satellite suburbs to each other in a convenient and easy to use system, then we can probably spare the expense.

The Opposition is claiming that an ACT wide network of light rail will simply be too expensive to build, especially for a government that admits that it is still years away from balancing the budget. The government freely admits that it is an expensive undertaking but continues to believe in light rail as part of a grand vision for the future of Canberra as the sustainable city that Chief Minister Andrew Barr is committed to building. The longer we wait to begin any kind of transport infrastructure upgrades, the more expensive the cost to taxpayers will be and the Opposition has unfortunately not been able to come up with a more constructive or cheaper proposal yet.

The light rail has also been widely criticised as being an infrastructure that will only benefit a small section of the city. With the initial proposed construction of rail from Gungahlin to the city, this is true. However, the government has made clear the intention to roll out light rail to the rest of Canberra and every infrastructure project has to start somewhere. The significant amount of high density housing that has gone up around the Gungahlin area makes it an ideal place to not only begin building, but start testing the way light rail will work, and will integrate with bus systems. Plus it will tackle the problem of congestion on Northbourne that has plagued Canberra for as long as anyone can remember.

Finally, the Opposition has questioned why the public would choose to use a light rail network that might take 25 minutes as opposed to driving ourselves to the same destination in 20 minutes. This is an interesting criticism and perhaps the Opposition is grasping at straws. Driving ourselves continues to contribute to congestion, we risk getting stuck in traffic, we need to continue to pay for cars, roads and insurance, and now need to pay for parking when we arrive at our destination. Adding a theoretical extra five minutes to our commute which takes away the stress of having to drive, find a park and reduces costs is probably a good compromise.

Canberra is one of Australia’s most car-dependent cities, ensuring that any change is going to have a massive price tag and involve huge amounts of highly disruptive construction of required infrastructure. The proposed light rail is Canberra’s biggest ever capital works project and it is up to us to decide whether we want to risk the disruption of extended works accompanied and huge expense to change our public transport system.

Is it time for Canberra to embrace the development and progress that light rail will probably bring to our city? The ACT government has undertaken a comprehensive community consultation process at every step of the way. This week is the final week of consultation and the Capital Metro pop-up tram will be at the Kippax shops on Thursday 12 February, the UC Canberra Capitals and the Brumbies home matches on Friday 13 February, Gungahlin Marketplace on Saturday 14 February and at the Multicultural Festival on Sunday 15 February. There are also online forums at haveyoursay.capitalmetro.act.gov.au to make the process as accessible and convenient as possible. Make sure you have your say and have an impact on how light rail will change the face of transport in Canberra.

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Jodi Morrell

Jodi Morrell recently abandoned her long-term public service career to pursue her passion for writing full time. She is passionate about politics, federal and local, and loves to explore and understand opposing political standpoints. Jodi loves travel, good food and wine, fitness and obstacle races (the muddier the better) and books. More about the Author

  • SJ

    I just hope they are responsible enough to include appropriate exit clauses if they get voted out. Don’t want to be left with a huge expensive problem like Melbourne and their East-West contract that will take millions of dollars to unravel.

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