Libs stuck in the public transport slow lane

For a party determined to make next year's territory election a referendum on light rail, the Canberra Liberals have moved at a snail's pace in formulating their own public transport policy. The opposition's transport spokesman, Alistair Coe, released a document this week, though it was more an options paper than an alternative vision. In his preamble, Mr Coe said he encouraged Canberrans to review the options – which include implementation of new bus priority measures to new lanes in the median strip suitable for bicycles, buses and emergency vehicles and cycle lanes – so as to provide "feedback about the best way to plan for our transport future".

The options paper is focused entirely on Northbourne Avenue, and indeed only that stretch between Constitution Avenue and Antill Street in Dickson. As such, the public feedback may have little relevance or value to the formulation of transport policy elsewhere in the territory, including along Flemington Road into Gungahlin proper, where Labor's light rail system is also scheduled to be rolled out.

But never mind – according to Mr Coe, the chief virtues of the Northbourne Avenue options are that they will deliver travel times equal to or better than light rail and that they will be delivered at "a fraction of the cost". That description may be trifle disingenuous, however.

The most expensive of the Liberals' Northbourne options will cost over $100 million, which, if duplicated on other major arterial roads such as Hindmarsh Drive, Adelaide Avenue, Belconnen Way, Ginninderra Drive and the Tuggeranong Parkway, would soon add up to something close to the estimated $800 million that Labor has budgeted for the first stage of light rail construction. The Liberals might well argue that discrete bus lanes on main commuter routes would deliver far wider community benefits than a comparably priced single 13km light rail line between Civic and Gungahlin – but of course they have not committed to any such a policy.

Inevitably, Labor has ridiculed the Liberals' approach as a "band-aid solution" which takes no account of the likelihood of future traffic congestion along Northbourne Avenue or of the potential liability the Liberals will incur if they tear up existing rail contracts, as they've promised to do in the event of winning next year's election.

If the Liberals' approach to light rail is regarded in some quarters as cynical, even self-serving, they are doing precisely what any other party in similar circumstances would do: keeping their options open. They can perhaps afford to, since public opposition to the cost and (im)practicality of light rail is significant. Additionally, economists have expressed doubts at the rigour and accuracy of the cost-benefit analyses which Labor is relying on to justify its signature transport infrastructure policy.

Having sought to make light rail the issue of the election by impugning its cost, suitability, and appropriateness, the opposition is under rather more obligation than usual to offer up credible alternatives. Outsourcing transport policy to the public smacks not just of laziness but of arrogance.