After 18 long months, the federal government on Tuesday signed off on environmental approvals for light rail stage 2A. It means an extended network from Alinga Street to Commonwealth Park is one step closer. Businesses in the southern part of Canberra's CBD are bracing for years of disruption when work gets under way on the major project. But many are looking on the bright side, seeing it as the short-term pain needed to transform the city for the better.
So what happens now?
Light rail stage 2A has passed the most-complex hurdle to getting off the ground, however it will still need to get National Capital Authority and ACT government planning approvals before any construction can start. Contracts to build light rail were due to be signed in the middle of last year, but the government has blamed a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and delays in federal approvals for the hold up.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr says they will be signed after all approvals have been granted. He says that should happen in the "coming weeks and months".
"We'll make that announcement when we're ready to," Mr Barr said.
Before light rail work can begin, London Circuit will be raised in line with Commonwealth Avenue. Mr Barr says this work could begin as early as 2021-22.
Will the disruption be worth it?
West Row Botanica owner David Reid expects his business will suffer from the years of construction work. While the florist can rely heavily on orders coming through online and via the phone, Mr Reid estimated up to $2000 a week came through foot traffic.
But he wasn't complaining, believing it would all be worth it in the end. "It's good for the city," he said. "It's going to improve ... It's a bit like going through COVID-19, we just need to be creative."
Reload Bar and Games co-owners Jim Andrews and Marc Brown think business will take a dive during construction of the next stage, but say the project has already improved business in the long run. Their bar is close to the Alinga Street light rail stop, enticing some patrons who didn't want to pay for a taxi. They hope southside customers will be more likely to make their way over the lake once the Woden line is complete.
"My main concern as a business owner would be to make sure at the end of it there's a quality landscape outcome," Mr Andrews said.
"There will likely be some disruption and reduced-customer flow while it's happening but in the long term we believe it's going to be good for us."
Mr Andrews hoped lessons would be learnt from construction in Gungahlin including ensuring fences around business didn't fully obstruct them from view.
The work to build light rail and raise London Circuit will also coincide with the $137 million Commonwealth Bridge upgrade and work on West Basin development. Mr Barr said the works were the culmination of 20 years of planning.
"Yes this will be disruptive to the southern end of the CBD," he said.
When will you be able to jump on board?
The government was asked repeatedly on Wednesday when stage 2A would be taking passengers but could not provide a clear timeline. Transport Minister Chris Steel did say tracks would be laid before the next election in 2024.
The redacted business case released in 2019 gave an indicative timeline of works, expecting operations to begin in 2024.
But that was under the assumption construction on the project would begin in 2020. Before tracks can be laid, London Circuit will be raised in line with Commonwealth Avenue.
Construction on those enabling works won't start until 2021-22 at the earliest and will take two years to complete. The government has so far only put aside a few million for the project. But Mr Barr says more funding for the raising of London Circuit will be announced in August's budget.
Why is London Circuit being raised?
The project will raise the London Circuit road level on either side of Commonwealth Avenue. It will involve changing the current split-level, overpass-underpass configuration into a level intersection.
The government has long wanted to bring Lake Burley Griffin to the city and thinks this is key, saying London Circuit bridge has created a disconnected public environment. Mr Barr has promised to improve pedestrian and cycling access between the CBD, City West, Acton and the developing Acton Waterfront through the work.
What is stage 2B and why will it take longer to approve?
Stage 2B will run from Commonwealth Park to Woden, crossing Commonwealth Bridge and running through the Parliamentary Triangle. It will be much more expensive to complete than light rail to Gungahlin - the first stage of the network - and will have a significantly more complex approvals process than stage 2A.
This is why the government decided to split the Alinga Street to Woden line into two projects, in the hope it could get started on part of it while waiting for final approvals. The government submitted the project for federal environmental approval at the same time as 2A (back in 2019), but it anticipates it will still take another 18 months to complete. That's because the route runs through areas of national significance, as well as habitats for the critically-endangered golden sun moth.
Once it gets environmental approvals, it will also have to be signed off on by federal Parliament. There is no clear timeframe for when stage 2B will be up and running, but it will be a number of years before construction could feasibly begin.