Leading transportation experts have given highly disparate assessments of the government’s much trumpeted infrastructure plans for Sydney.
While the government is touting the launch of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects throughout Sydney in 2015, the actual benefits of these undertakings remain much contested by experts.
James Brigg, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, has called the swathe of ambitious projects set to commence this year nothing short of “game-changing” for the city of Sydney.
These projects include the $509 million Bringelly Road upgrade in Western Sydney, the $70 million Werrington Arterial Road between the M4 and the Great Western Highway, the $3 billion NorthConnex project in the city’s northwest, and the record-breaking $10 billion WestConnex project – Australia’s largest-ever roadway undertaking.
According to Brigg, these projects will dramatically improve Sydney’s transportation infrastructure, slash travel times for drivers along a raft of vital routes, as well as create many thousands of jobs in the construction sector.
The verdict on the likely merits of this multi-billion dollar batch of road projects amongst the transportation experts, however, remains extremely mixed.
Geoffrey Clifton, a lecturer in Transport and Logistics Management at the University of Sydney’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, provides a positive overall assessment to the government’s infrastructure ambitions.
“The government’s spending on improving the transport system will have a transformative impact,” he said. “It will fill in some of the missing links in the road network and open up more areas for the sort of industrial and commercial development that drives job creation.”
According to Clifton, a key benefit of the upcoming round of infrastructure creation will be the heightened connectivity it will provide to residents throughout Sydney
“New cross regional road developments are fantastic at providing the anywhere to anywhere connectivity that supports access to jobs and education in the western suburbs of Sydney and the regional areas,” he said.
Clifton does offer the caveat, however, that the government’s infrastructure program may place excessive importance upon connectivity with the centre of the city.
“It is worth questioning whether some of the focus on new transport capacity to and from the CBD is misplaced – particularly road capacity," he noted. "Are we responding to demand, or are we just increasing the dominance of the CBD?”
Clifton also notes that the government’s much-touted mega-projects may not be the most economical solutions to Sydney’s transport challenges, pointing to the adoption of far less costly measures in other parts of Australia.
“There may be cheaper alternatives to some of the big ticket items on the government’s investment list," he said. "We know from cities like Brisbane that investing in quality Bus Rapid Transit provides most of the benefits of rail based options at a fraction of the cost, and without many of the effects of disruption during construction.”
In stark contrast, Christopher Standen, a research analyst also based at the University of Sydney’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, gives a scathing assessment of the government’s road-focused infrastructure plans, referring to them as a “huge waste.”
“We can never provide enough road capacity to cater for the huge latent demand for car travel in a highly populated and fast growing city,” he said. “Investing in urban road expansion to ‘fix congestion’ is essentially a huge waste, and should not be funded through either asset recycling or borrowing.”
Standen is particularly critical of WestConnex, pointing to several precedents in Sydney as proof of the project’s poor economics.
“We know that urban freeways give a negative return on investment – Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel and Lane Cove Tunnel are prime examples,” he said. “WestConnex will be no different.”
Standen notes that the purported benefits of the project are based upon unsound economic reasoning.
“The benefit to the economy and productivity will be a fraction of the AU$15 billion cost Some $18 billion of the $20 billion in ‘economic benefits’ claimed by Jamie Briggs is merely the value of expected ‘travel time savings’ and ‘travel time reliability,'" he said.
“Personal travel time savings do not benefit the economy, because any time saved is largely used for leisure, not economically productive activities.”
In addition to being a form of potentially immense malinvestment, Standen points out that heavy spending on roads can also have highly negative impacts that outweigh any of the provisional benefits they bring.
“Any time savings and reductions in congestion will be short lived, because building urban freeways induces additional car travel demand: public transport users switch to car, off-peak travellers switch to peak, and people are encouraged to move further away from their workplaces," he said. "Urban freeways also adversely affect the quality of life and health of residents, as well as those who use them – they are subjected to stressful delays and exposed to high concentrations of air toxins."
“More and more cities around the world are coming to this realization and actually demolishing their freeways, not building new ones.”