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No clear road to capital's light rail

Newcastle residents were recently promised the first stage of a light rail system that could help transform the NSW city's central business district. But the project will only go ahead if a potentially unpopular privatisation also proceeds.

The NSW budget included a promise of $340 million for the replacement of heavy rail infrastructure with light rail between Wickham and Newcastle.

In exchange for the $340 million, the people of Newcastle will see their port sold by the NSW Coalition government for about $700 million.

In our own backyard, those of us who first glimpsed artists' impressions of trams or buses running down the middle of Northbourne Avenue when we were small children are told we will soon see the real thing.

The first tracks for a light rail line between Civic and Gungahlin are due to be installed before the 2016 election.

The green grass on Northbourne Avenue is waiting to be torn up, but the light rail tracks will need somewhere to go when they turn on to Flemington Road towards Gungahlin.

There's enough land beside Flemington Road for rail tracks and that land might also help the government solve another problem: how to pay for the Capital Metro.

Stage one of Newcastle's light rail will be financed with proceeds from the port privatisation.

Similarly, in a celebrated episode of The Simpsons, the people of Springfield used the proceeds of a fine imposed on the villainous Mr Burns to purchase a second-hand monorail.

But barring an unexpected windfall profit, the ACT government will have to borrow to build its light rail network.

Selling land along the light rail corridor would deliver big profits to the government and potentially help pay off the infrastructure.

One possibility is selling Thoroughbred Park and/or Exhibition Park.

With easy access to the Metro, high-density housing or commercial developments, the sites could be very profitable.

EPIC and Thoroughbred Park could be relocated elsewhere, possibly to the Majura Valley.

Creating more housing density - along Northbourne Avenue and potentially on the EPIC and Thoroughbred Park sites - would help build a customer base for the Capital Metro.

Regardless of how much land it sells, or customers it attracts, the government knows the Capital Metro is unlikely to make a profit, or even break even.

The likely cost of the project was estimated last year to be about $614 million, but an official budget is yet to be finalised.

Like Lisa and Marge Simpson's sceptical views of the Springfield Monorail, the ACT Liberal opposition is not sure building a light rail system is the best use of public funds.

And the government is yet to do the work needed to persuade influential government advisory body Infrastructure Australia of the merits of light rail.

In a report published this week, IA suggested new bus lanes be created on Northbourne Avenue, but didn't mention trams.

Without inclusion on IA's priority infrastructure list, the ACT has little hope of attracting federal government or private sector investment in the project.

Treasurer Andrew Barr plans to attract a private sector partner or partners to help build and operate the Capital Metro.

Barr has not tried to hide the fact taxpayers will carry all of the financial risk related to passenger numbers.

Like ACTION buses, the government expects the network to require a continuing subsidy.

A failure to publicly justify and then contain that subsidy to a level the community will accept could be a political disaster for the Gallagher government.

Peter Jean is Chief Assembly Reporter

Twitter: @pjean01

5 comments so far

  • Norhbourne is hardly a dense travel corridor in Canberra, when compared nationally; so why does the beautiful grass and old trees lining the middle have to be torn up on a SIX LANE AVENUE? In Melbourne buses, cars, bikes AND trams operate in one direction on a single lane, so why not here, where the traffic is considerably less dense? Surely it would be more economic, ecological and convenient to have the trams running on the sides closer to the pavement. I am all for light rail but as long as it keeps the integrity of our "main street". IT MAKES NO SENSE. It is so typically Canberran to "spread out" rather than "fill in". We see it with suburban sprawl destroying nature reserves to make way for boxes of ticky-tacky and now we're seeing it on our main artery. It's disgusting but oh so typically Canberran.

    Date and time
    July 06, 2013, 4:08AM
    • You mention the NSW government's desire to privatise Newcastle port. It is contemplating a deal with arch-conservative, so-called christian Fred Nile to enable the deal. Nile will support the sale in the upper house, if the government grants full legal status to a foetus from conception. This would facilitate the introduction of highly restrictive US style abortion laws. They have already begun their campaign againt women's rights to govern their own bodies by proposing to ban abortion to select the sex of the baby, although there is no evidence that this has been happening except in some very rare cases where a child may be vulnerable to a sex linked genetic condition such as fragile-x syndrome.

      Governments can always find the money to pay for the things they want. If the NSW government wanted to build better public transport it would happen. This is one more example of their conviction that private is always better than public - roads, not trains; cars, not light rail; privatise the ports now for a quick buck, don't reap the rewards over years from renting. And another example of the disgraceful lengths they will go to achieve their goals. The women of NSW need to be very, very careful or their autonomy will be sold off as well.

      Date and time
      July 06, 2013, 8:21AM
      • Surely it doesn't make sense to move venues for large events AWAY from new transport infrastructure ....

        inner north
        Date and time
        July 06, 2013, 11:32AM
        • The lesson from "light rail" (tramway) history is "look for the land development connection", so this news is no surprise There is always someone somewhere who will be making some money out of it - not by carrying people, but by developing land that the tram will service. Light rail is costly, limited in what it can do (service a corridor), and Newcastle would be better served by a modern busway system that could do everything a rail-based system could do, and more. The same applies in Canberra.

          Central Victoria
          Date and time
          July 06, 2013, 11:42AM
          • Don' think this light rail will work. What we need is a proper rail ( maybe even an underground one if we can afford) connecting the town centres. The ACTION buses can then support, by connecting the respective suburbs to these railway stations. The current light rail idea just seems to be a white elephant in the making and with a potential of causing further disruptions to the already congested Northbourne.

            Don't think so
            Date and time
            July 06, 2013, 12:06PM

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