The ACT Liberals have laid the first of their transport policy cards on the table – with proposals to duplicate Gundaroo Drive from Mirrabei Drive in Gungahlin to the Barton Highway (linking it to William Slim Drive with a flyover) and to spend $51 million on new buses. New peak-hour "super express" bus services operating to and from major town centres have been flagged as well, with opposition transport spokesman Alistair Coe suggesting these will improve overall travel times and ensure residents taking the bus arrive at their destinations before those who choose to drive. Mr Coe won't be drawn as to when these new policies are rolled out, but says they will be a "priority" for the first year of a new government.
Much is riding on the Liberals' transport policy, and not just because the party has indicated it will cancel the Barr government's proposed $800 million Gungahlin to Civic tram line if it wins the October 2016 election. Light rail opponents have applauded their decision as the fiscally responsible one to take, even though the Liberals have skated around the issue of just how far they're prepared to go to cancel contracts and/or lock the gates on further construction. Nonetheless, significant numbers of Canberrans believe light rail has a place in the city's transport future, though when that time may arrive remains a matter of dispute. They will be looking closely at the Liberals' transport proposals, the more as Infrastructure Australia warned last month that road congestion will increase significantly over the next 15 years.
From that point of view, the promise of improved arterial road access for Gungahlin residents hardly seems visionary – though as a quid pro quo for snatching light rail away from residents, it ticks all of the right political boxes. It also tidily negates any advantage Labor (and backbencher Meegan Fitzharris) might gain from any efforts they undertake to duplicate the same section of Gundaroo Drive. There's nothing particularly innovative about new buses either, though Mr Coe can claim some fiscal virtue in using money earmarked for the Capital Metro Agency's budget to help pay for them.
That the Liberals' 2016 transport policy will feature an enlarged bus fleet offering faster, more frequent services to and from the town centres (as an alternative to light rail) now looks obvious. But with congestion on Canberra roads forecast to worsen over the next decade and a half, how will a Liberal government ensure that bus commute times are superior to those of private vehicle users, as Mr Coe envisages?
Logic suggests that the only way to realise such a goal would be by building dedicated bus lanes. The median strips on Canberra's main arterial roads would convert readily into these exclusive corridors; the capital costs, including buying extra buses, will not be insignificant, however.
Attacking light rail's $800 million price-tag has been the equivalent of electoral manna for the Liberals, and they they will be understandably loathe to furnish the government with opportunities to return fire. This will be the hot-button election issue, however, and until they submit their full public transport policy for scrutiny, the Liberals' credibility will remain in doubt.
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