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WA decision to ditch light rail in favour of buses reverberates in Canberra

The West Australian government's costly scrapping of its light-rail network has sparked a war of words in ACT as the territory's election nears.

The Barnett state Liberal government confirmed this week it would not go ahead with its "MAX Light Rail" system, despite having already spent a reported $25 million to prepare for it.

The ACT's Labor government warned that the Canberra Liberals would mimic their WA counterparts, causing chaos in the capital.

However, the ACT opposition said the Barnett government's decision showed that buses were a more effective public transport option.

The WA government cited cost blow-outs, which had pushed the project's total bill to $2.5 billion, and a lack of support from the Commonwealth in its decision to ditch light rail.

It will now proceed with a rapid-bus system, similar to the proposal pushed by the Canberra Liberals.

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The West Australian Liberals had promised to build the light-rail network before the state election three years ago. It was to link the CBD with Perth's northern suburbs and with a medical centre in the city's west.

But the government deferred the plan, leaving it out of its long-term transport policy last year.

Transport Minister Dean Nalder confirmed this week the project had been abandoned, saying it no longer stacked up financially.

The state Labor opposition, which proposed its own rail system during the 2013 election, said the decision was a major broken promise.

The debate out west echoes that playing out in the ACT before the local October election, although the Barr government has already signed a contract to build a light-rail route.

The Canberra Liberals have pledged to rip up the government's contract, a decision Labor says would cost $300 million, and which the federal government has described as "economic lunacy".

The news from WA prompted the opposition and government on Thursday to attack each other.

Transport Minister Meegan Fitzharris said the West Australian decision had created planning chaos, uncertainty, wasted $25 million and broken a key promise to the state's voters.

She said Canberrans could expect the same if the Liberals won government in the ACT in October.

However, transport spokesman Alistair Coe said the WA decision further confirmed that bus investment was the most "cost-effective way to improve public transport".

"Canberra is a city suited for bus infrastructure. We have a low and spread-out population, which doesn't support slow modes of transport such as light rail," Mr Coe said.

"The Canberra Liberals have a plan to stop light rail and to improve the ACTION bus network by investing in eight rapid routes to improve public transport for all Canberrans."

Ms Fitzharris said she found it "astounding" that the opposition believed the WA government's abandonment of an election commitment was the right thing to do.

"The WA Liberals have now wasted more than $25 million on planning for light rail, so clearly the Canberra Liberals think throwing away money is more important than good transport planning," she said.

Ms Fitzharris also appeared before an estimates committee on Thursday afternoon, warning the construction industry in Canberra would "grind to a halt" if the Liberals took away such a significant investment.

"Infrastructure investment is vital to the building and construction industry," she said.

"In the absence of a significant infrastructure investment, that has no alternative replacement, this city could really grind to a halt in parts of its construction industry," she said. 

Light rail had been the centrepiece of the WA government's long-term transport policy before next year's state election.

The state's Treasurer Mike Nahan conceded on Wednesday that dumping light rail would undermine the community's trust of his government.

The WA opposition leader Mark McGowan said the broken promise "defines Colin Barnett and the Liberal party".

"The Liberals went to the last election promising a fix to that problem and they've broken that promise."

with AAP