Australia’s biggest infrastructure project, Sydney’s $16.8 billion WestConnex motorway, pledges to “ease congestion, create jobs and connect communities”.
But instead of bringing people together, WestConnex is tearing them apart, with politicians launching attacks on one another ahead of the federal election as the motorway’s merits come under fresh scrutiny by the National Audit Office (NAO).
Projects Minister Paul Fletcher on Friday accused federal Labor of hitting “reverse gear” on its previous strong commitment to the motorway, highlighting the $1.8 billion committed by the then Labor government in the 2013 budget and former infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese’s claims that it would improve the quality of life for people in western Sydney.
“But that was before his seat of Grayndler was affected by 2015 Federal Redistribution in NSW, exposing Albanese to a significant challenge from the Greens,” Mr Fletcher said, adding this had led to a “marked change” in position, with Albanese now promising not to spend any more federal money on WestConnex if Labor is elected.
Labor has also said it will withdraw $1.2 billion in federal funding for Perth’s controversial Freight Link project if elected.
“This new found hostility to major road projects is occurring in the face of clear advice from federal and state government specialist infrastructure advisory bodies,” Fletcher said, pointing out that both WestConnex and the Freight Link are rated “high priorities” by Infrastructure Australia.
‘Just do it’
Greater Sydney Commission chairman Lucy Turnbull has also entered into the debate on WestConnex, urging NSW to “move forward and do it”.
The WestConnex toll road aims to make commuting faster for people driving from Sydney’s booming western suburbs into the central business district and eventually create faster routes to Sydney Airport and Port Botany.
Albanese says he does not believe federal funding should be given to the Freight Link before the completion of a cost-benefit analysis, and that WestConnex is suffering from “lack of proper process”.
Communities affected by the construction of the 33-kilometre-long WestConnex agree.
“We’re not anti-infrastructure, and we’re definitely not anti-roads,” spokesperson for the WestConnex Action Group, Pauline Lockie said. “But there are serious question marks over the project and the way so much federal money has been put into it.”
The federal government has allocated $3.5 billion for WestConnex, including $1.5 billion in direct funding and a $2 billion concessional loan.
Lockie argues there is “no transparency” over how the loan payments work and what kind of milestones the project needs to meet to receive government funds. “All that money was promised before a business case was even developed, let alone publicly available.”
New appraisal released
A new economic appraisal of WestConnex, prepared by KPMG in November 2015 for an updated business case, has been released, but information on operations and maintenance costs, as well as capital costs (including property, design and construction costs) has been blacked out. The NSW government has estimated WestConnex’s benefits will be 70 per cent higher than its costs.
The WestConnex Action Group, which claims the NSW government did not properly assess alternatives to the motorway and that it will only be a “short-term fix” to Sydney’s traffic congestion, wants the federal government to stop funding the project until the NAO releases its report in January.
The NAO, which started its audit in May and is accepting submissions until the end of July, is examining whether “appropriate steps” were taken to protect the Commonwealth’s interests and obtain “value for money” for its $3.5 billion funding package. It is also investigating whether the Commonwealth’s decision to invest in WestConnex was informed by “appropriate advice”.
NSW Premier Mike Baird has acknowledged that the government could have done a better job consulting with the community on WestConnex – hundreds of homes are being compulsorily acquired in Sydney to make way for the motorway – but this week reiterated his “steely determination” to push ahead with the project.
Baird is wary of NSW falling into the same trap as Victoria, which was forced to pay some $400 million compensation to construction companies after the Andrews government abandoned the state’s $11 billion East West Link motorway project in late 2014.
But had both the WestConnex and East West Link proposals been canvassed more thoroughly with communities before states pushed ahead with them – and their business cases debated in public before governments handed over the cash – there may not have been so many speed bumps along the way.