Western Australian transport planner and consultant James McIntosh has rejected a claim that Canberra's tram will change nothing, insisting light-rail projects are transformative.
Not only did tram lines have direct transport and environmental benefits, Mr Mcintosh said, they brought higher land values near the line, and allowed high-density living, which made people more productive.
Mr McIntosh has just completed a PhD at Curtin University looking the value that infrastructure projects bring to property markets and has advised the ACT government on the tram line, but is not a paid consultant.
He was speaking in response to criticism of the tram from former Treasury heavyweight David Hughes in yesterday's Canberra Times. Mr Hughes, also a former Audit Office official, said the tram should be assessed simply as a transport project, without the "red herrings" of job creation and higher-density living – and on that basis, it didn't stack up.
Mr McIntosh said many of the issues raised by Mr Hughes were correct if the project was viewed purely as a transport project, but it was much more than that.
"The reason why we undertake, in particular, light-rail projects is not solely for transport benefits. We use light rail to shape our cities. The city-shaping benefits that are created from the investment in light rail are not captured within standard transport economics," he said.
Capital Metro Minister Simon Corbell also responded to Mr Hughes' criticism, saying any suggestion that transport projects should be assessed in isolation was "ill informed" and took "a very blinkered perspective". Mr Corbell, writing in today's Canberra Times, said broader economic benefits must be taken into account, with land use, transport and economic planning considered holistically.
"Light rail is a proven city-shaping tool, it changes the value of land and activity surrounding it – buses do not have this city-shaping effect," he writes.
Mr McIntosh said it was wrong for rail opponents to suggest that Northbourne Avenue could be developed for high-density living without a tram line. Developers needed the permanency of a fixed line, and buses were riskier because the route could be shifted. Higher-density development also required too much parking and would cause congestion in the absence of public transport. "Think of what poor old Northbourne Avenue would look like with that many car trips on it. If they're talking about the corridor having an increase in density over a 20- or 30-year period of tens of thousands, that's a lot of extra cars," he said.
"You cannot do high-density development in a car-based culture, otherwise you wind up like Houston … just one large car park."
The tram line would bring the standard transport benefits, in reduced travel times, fewer accidents, less "social exclusion", less noise and greenhouse gases, and would increase people's security on public transport and costs of using cars, he said. All of these benefits should be part of a cost-benefit analysis.
But the benefits went far further, and althoughtransport consultants and treasuries did not always understand how to calculate wider economic benefits, they were part of the picture.
People living close to city centres in higher-density housing were more efficient and productive because of the time saved getting to work. That created economic growth.
Higher-density living also saved hundreds of thousands of dollars per property in road and utility costs compared with greenfields development on the outskirts of cities.
The government's financial analysis should also take account of the increase in land values, he said, pointing to light rail projects in the United States, where values about 400 metres either side of a line increased from anywhere from about 4 per cent to 32 per cent.
The government would "capture" the increase in land values through rates and land taxes, advertising revenue, parking fees, sales of naming rights to stations and property sales, all of which should be included in the financial analysis. Other projects had also imposed transport levies, developer contributions, parking levies, and special rates districts to raise money. But Mr McIntosh said special levies should not be introduced without "an honest and robust discussion with stakeholders", and developer contributions could be counterproductive – driving developers away.
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