ACT News


On the road to nowhere?

The ACT's new transport plan is ambitious but how do we pay for it, EWA KRETOWICZ asks

A brilliant ambitious, long-term transport plan or unfunded aspirational dream in an election year? Leading academics are heaping praise on the latest Canberra transport plan but say it won't be worth the paper it's written on unless the upcoming budget sets aside millions for its application.

The new Canberra Transport Plan released this week has been almost universally applauded but the likelihood of its delivery has been questioned without a detailed funding plan.

A seven-day bus timetable and increased frequency of bus services are the centrepieces of a new Transport for Canberra Strategy. The plan sets targets of 15-minute bus frequency on the territory's arterial roads and 30-minute public transport services within a 5-10 minute walk of every resident by 2021. As well, by 2016 the ACT Government wants almost a quarter of all journeys to and from work to be on bike, foot or its upgraded public transport system - bus, tram or light rail.

But the plan is dependent on favourable negotiations with the transport union which has successfully fought moves to a seven-day roster in the past, sufficient funding and residents' acceptance of higher density along transport corridors. The question of light rail, tram or bus needs to be decided as well.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher is optimistic a return to the negotiating table with ACT Transport Workers Union will be favourable.

''It requires industrial agreement to deliver that and we've got it in the short-term goal of two years - this is something that we will have to negotiate with the bus drivers so it is an industrial agreement,'' Gallagher said.


''Yes we've tried before and didn't get it through but I don't think that means we shouldn't raise it again.''

But director of the University of Sydney's Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering Ken Dobinson isn't as optimistic. He said the work was brilliant but without a funding plan it wasn't worth the paper it was written on.

''Where is the funding plan? I don't believe any plan is a plan unless you can actually pay for it and I don't think this plan is too ambitious for Canberra but there was no funding plan of how they are going to pay for it,'' Dobinson said.

''If it hasn't got a funding plan - then it's not a plan. If you can't pay for it you're just having yourself on.''

Gallagher said cabinet would weigh transport against other budget demands each year but Dobinson said it wasn't good enough.

''Look at it over 20 years and see what they can afford and if they can't afford it, and therefore can't deliver it, they should then review it to what they can realistically achieve over that 20 years and then get stuck into it.''

Dobinson savaged Canberra's current public transport model. ACTION's average cost per passenger per trip is $6.50 and in 2011-12 the ACT taxpayers' subsidy is expected to be $81 million. But passenger numbers have been almost static at about 17,000 per year since 2006-07, although this has increased with the introduction of the 15-minute Rapid service.

''If it doesn't run every 15 minutes - in fact I would target 10 minutes - then you don't have a transport system,'' Dobinson said.

He said when regional Sydney bus services started running on a seven-day-a-week timetable, with frequency upped to 15 minutes, passenger numbers exploded.

''In the last 12 months patronage on that system increased 400 per cent. People just won't use a system where you have one bus running every hour. The only people who use the one-an-hour bus service is those who have absolutely no choice.''

Dobinson warned that the viability of the bus service and increasing patronage would require higher density along arterial roads.

''This plan is based on higher density,'' he said.

But in the past voter backlash has forced the government to back down on increasing building heights and led to moratoriums on high-rise development, even in areas zoned for apartments and units.

''The people of Canberra will need to accept higher density development along the nodes and transport corridors … I hope that has been discussed with the community,'' he said.

''Some people living in low-density suburbs with single-dwelling houses become quite agitated when they are going to have to have four and five-storey buildings. But that's the way this plan goes.''

The increases to the bus services comes as the ACT Government considers trams or light rail options along Northbourne Avenue.

Lecturer in transport and logistic studies at the University of Sydney Geoffrey Clifton said the targets outlined by the plan can only be achieved if ''significant funding'' is set aside for the plan in the coming budget.

''The trade-off between coverage and frequency is one of the big debates in public transport,'' Clifton said.

''It's quite an ambitious project and they are talking about a dramatic increase in the level of frequency especially on the main corridors,'' he said.

''For a city like Canberra that is quite a high level of service - I'm not saying it's gold-plated but it's high.''

Clifton and Dobinson said passengers numbers would not increase until services were going at least every 15 minutes.

''If it's not every quarter hour, at least, you're not going to attract people out of their cars - 15 minutes is the generally accepted figure around Australia and the US, in European cities it's 12 minutes or better,'' Clifton said.

Dobinson said dedicated bus lanes in the centre of Northbourne Avenue could be cheaply and relatively quickly upgraded to light rail when the territory's population made such a move more financially viable.

''When the numbers build up enough you convert that to a tramways - I doubt Canberra is there now but maybe in 20 years it will be.''

Ewa Kretowicz is a staff reporter.