Despite the millions of dollars already spent on salaries for staff of the light rail and spin doctors hired to sell the message, the government has done an appalling job of promoting Capital Metro. However, to be fair, it is a tough project to sell to taxpayers. While everyone likes the idea of getting a tram, how many people in Canberra will be able to travel from point A to point B on the proposed light rail route?
The ACT government’s light rail project has a current cost estimate of $614 million for a "network" that runs along Northbourne Avenue and Flemington Road. The project was hastily confirmed in November 2012 as a key pillar in Shane Rattenbury’s agreement with Katy Gallagher. What has happened since is a poor example of how to build a transport system, which has cost the ACT taxpayer greatly.
The only economic analysis the government has released shows investment in buses would deliver more than double the economic return of light rail. This would not be a surprise to regular users of the Red Rapid 200 bus which runs the same route as the proposed light rail line, before going on to Russell, Barton, Kingston and Fyshwick. A dedicated bus lane, or relatively simple bus priority measures, would go a long way to achieving the benefits proposed of light rail.
Before committing to such a program, the government should have done a genuine assessment of the viability of an ACT-wide light rail network and then, if it was shown to be viable and affordable, determined the most economic way to roll out the network in stages.
Instead, the government is operating in reverse by deciding, as a political measure, the first leg, and then trying to mould a network around it. Through this approach, it will render the first stage of light rail a white elephant and ruin for decades any prospect of light rail expansion to other parts of Canberra.
Of course, the main issue with the government’s proposal is the low projected patronage. The government’s own figures project just 4500 commuters will use the service each day. Sure, trams will be at capacity for an hour southbound in the morning and an hour northbound in the evening, as are the buses that already run that route, but what about the other 23 hours a day in each direction? How many people will be travelling north to Gungahlin from the city at 8.30am?
The government also talks about light rail as being about property redevelopment along Northbourne Avenue. However, as we have already seen with apartment buildings such as Space, Space 2, Axis, The Avenue, IQ and many others, Northbourne Avenue can be developed without light rail, if only land in the corridor is made available.
Little by little, Labor insiders must be realising the enormity of their commitment and perhaps even looking at ways to abandon, or at least stall it. News of ACT Labor polling this issue is evidence of that.
Even the then-Labor federal government in 2013 said of the ACT government’s request for funding of light rail that "the case for favouring light rail over bus rapid transit has not been strongly made, especially when the submission itself points to the stronger economic performance of a bus rapid transit option".
So, what options are open to the ACT government to abandon the project with minimal fallout? Blame Tony Abbott? It would be hard, given former prime minister Julia Gillard refused to fund light rail. Further to this, in the weeks leading up to the Liberals’ inevitable federal election victory last year, the Chief Minister said of light rail that "we would like Commonwealth funding but the project is not contingent on it".
If the Chief Minister cannot blame the federal government, what about stalling the project? Perhaps the ACT government will start the excavation and relocation of the unknown gas, water, sewerage and cables located in the Northbourne median strip and, in doing so, conveniently discover issues that stall the project until after the 2016 election.
Beyond the election, Labor would hope to be not reliant on the Greens’ support and they could then drop the project. However, such stalling tactics (even with excavated pipes likely to be insulated with asbestos) would be obvious.
In addition to this, in order to access the pipes and cables, the government would not be able to avoid the outcry as chainsaws were taken to hundreds of trees lining the Northbourne median strip, upsetting the very people who are advocating light rail.
Finally, the government might just cancel the project, saying it is not the right time, and hope that the political fallout, and with Rattenbury, is not too disastrous.
One way or another, taxpayers and the government stand to lose as a result of this ill-considered commitment. Either the project goes ahead with a huge construction cost, massive interest repayments and high operating costs, or the government abandons the project despite already having spent millions.
That $614 million is a huge amount of money for a project with a purely political genesis. ACT taxpayers should not have to prop up the deal done between Rattenbury and Gallagher to keep Labor in power following the 2012 election. As such, light rail should be delayed until the economics of the project are viable.
Tuesday’s territory budget featuring financial commitments for the next four years will give an indication of just how much Canberrans will be paying for the tram.
Alistair Coe is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and shadow shadow minister for Urban Services, Planning and Infrastructure, Transport and Environment.