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Putting the gloss back on buses

The requirement to fervently talk up the Canberra Liberals' proposed overhaul of the ACTION bus system pitch was not lost on Alistair Coe this week. With public transport policy the single most contentious issue of October's Territory election (courtesy of the Barr government's nascent Gungahlin to Civic light rail project and the Liberals' vow to undo it regardless of cost should it win office), the Opposition's Transport spokesman described his party's election pitch on Thursday as "probably the biggest transport reform ever proposed by a government or opposition in the ACT".

Labor claims the same of its own light rail ambitions, so the superlative was perhaps moot. Nonetheless, the Liberals' proposals have the potential to overturn the commonest public perception that Canberra's buses are a second-rate transport option.

Though it provides an otherwise effective public transport service, ACTION is handicapped by Canberra's sprawling suburban layout, by people's overwhelming preference to use cars to commute to work, to shop or to ferry children to school, and by a bureaucracy and union-heavy structure that resists innovation and change. Community service obligations require it to run routes that are circuitous, slow and frequently uneconomic, and even people inclined to commute to work by bus do so in the knowledge that their options for side trips to the shops or the doctor are virtually non-existent.

The Liberals' policy (pointedly entitled "Canberra's transport future for all Canberrans") should greatly enhance ACTION's appeal, not just for commuters looking to get to work quicker, but for late night, weekend and other occasional users too. Indeed, many voters contemplating the measures on offer (and they include an airport service, extended late night and summer services, a seven-day network, a loyalty scheme and greater emphasis on a user-friendly ticketing system ) are likely to query why it's taken so long for logic and common sense to prevail.

The answer to that is that Canberra politicians, like most of their constituents, don't catch the bus, and so have never really given much thought as to how the service might be improved. Union intransigence, too, has also played a role in holding ACTION back from providing a more modern and efficient system.

No specific mention has been made in the policy of when the changes will be implemented, though Mr Coe is insisting that "many" will be in place within a year of the Liberals coming to office. There's a similarly hopeful air about the overall costs as well, with a forecast that a $20 million boost to ACTION's budget of about $140 million a year (including revenue diverted from the Capital Metro Agency) will cover the tab. It's a dauntingly slight figure given the intention to acquire new buses, to revamp major stations and to install new passenger-friendly facilities.

Though it lacks the land value-adding potential of light rail, the Liberals' bus proposal has the virtue of being more practical, useful and affordable, as well as being adaptable to future technological changes. It's a vision that will resonated with many voters fed up with rising government charges and rates.