By Cameron White
This submission addresses the issue of whether the Westconnex project meets the goal of sustainability. It begins by setting out what the project and the EIS purports to do and then critiques those claims. It finds that Westconnex despite its claims is NOT an integrated transport solution.
The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Westconnex East highlights the unsustainability of current transport infrastructure systems in western and inner-western Sydney. This issue of sustainability is defined in terms of congestion, amenity, health, safety and climate change. The ‘Application Report’ for the Westconnex East EIS shows ‘transport emissions produced from the use of fuels are currently the third fastest growing component of NSW-generated greenhouse gases’. Transport trends in Sydney and Australia are consistent with these issues. Per capita levels of car use have been in decline since 2004 and demand for public transport and active forms of transport are rapidly increasing (SGS, 2015).
Potentially, the Westconnex East EIS presents a nuanced response to these issues. Rather than a one size fits all, stand alone road project, it argues that the project seeks to target only essential forms of road-use related to freight, commercial and services tasks. Secondly, it describes the project as part of a broader integrated transport solution that includes numerous public transport initiatives designed to service commuters who might otherwise opt for road-transport.
Targeting essential forms of road-use?
- Firstly the EIS illustrates that the Westconnex East project seeks to target essential forms of road-use related to freight, commercial and services tasks. Sydney’s freight, commercial and services tasks require distribution of goods and services across the Sydney basin, which relies on more diverse and dispersed point-to-point transport connections that can only be provided by the road network (4.2.3).
The key customer markets identified for the project include highly dispersed and long distance passenger movements, as well as heavy and light freight and commercial services and businesses whose travel patterns are also greatly dispersed and diverse in nature (4.7)
An integrated transport solution?
Secondly, the Westconnex M4 East EIS highlights the need to view the project as part of a broader integrated transport solution, that includes numerous public transport initiatives. The Westconnex East EIS states:
- The project (as part of WestConnex) is considered to be a key driver for the introduction of a rapid transport solution (i.e. buses or light rail). The introduction of a rapid transit solution would result in more frequent and reliable public transport which would encourage higher patronage of public transport along the M4 and Parramatta Road corridor’ (section 3.2).
As part of a broader integrated transport solution, the project supports a coordinated approach to the management of… all modes of transport including road, rail, bus, ferries, light rail, cycling and walking (4.2.3).
Demand management measures are [also] seen as complementary initiatives… to the project (4.2.4)
The EIS statement illustrates how Westconnex East relates to several key New South Wales Transport planning documents. These include:
- Sydney’s Rail Future: Modernising Sydney’s Trains(Transport for NSW 2012b) regarding the need to ‘improve the Western Rail Line, which runs parallel to the project’.
Sydney’s Bus Future: Simpler, faster, better bus services (Transport for NSW 2013a). As the EIS describes it, this document states that investment in the bus network would occur in parallel with WestConnex. WestConnex would assist in introducing a bus rapid transit route along Parramatta Road in the long term, by providing an alternative route for longer distance trips (the project) along the M4 and Parramatta Road corridor. The project would be used generally by people who currently use Parramatta Road for through trips or longer distance trips. The project would include provision for a future bus rapid transit route in the design of the Parramatta Road interchange. Once in place, this bus rapid transit route could be upgraded to light rail, to respond to the increased transport demand associated with population growth along Parramatta Road (Transport for NSW 2013a).
Sydney’s Light Rail Future: Expanding public transport, revitalising our city (Transport for NSW 2012c). As the Westconnex East EIS describes it, Sydney’s Light Rail Future states that in the longer term WestConnex may allow road space to be reallocated on City Road or Parramatta Road to allocate space to public transport in the University of Sydney corridor, the area that services the Universities to the west of Sydney CBD. At present, four light rail routes linking to Parramatta CBD are under investigation. One of these would connect the CBD to Sydney Olympic Park, running parallel to the existing M4 and the project to Burwood/Strathfield.
Sydney’s Cycling Future (Transport for NSW 2013b). Westconnex East will ‘maintain and, where feasible, improving network connectivity’.
Sydney’s Walking Future (Transport for NSW 2013c) Westconnex East would ‘improve urban amenity and road safety, contributing to an improved pedestrian environment’.
These two sets of initiatives related to, firstly, the targeting of essential forms of road-use and secondly the development of numerous integrated public transport opportunities, are both integral to the project’s capacity to reduce environmental impact. As the EIS for Westconnex M4 East argues, the project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by road users by around 56,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2021 and around 45,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2031. These reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are projected to take place in spite of the projected growth of Sydney’s population. Western Sydney alone is expecting an increase in population of up to 900,000 people by 2031. An increase in transport demand from and to Western Sydney will continue to rise in parallel (Vol. 1a, p. ii).
Problems with the EIS
The problem with the Westconnex East EIS, and the reason that the project should be rejected at this time, is its inadequate capacity to explain and account for the impact of these initiatives related to, firstly, the targeting of essential forms of road-use and, secondly, the numerous public transport initiatives that form part of the broader, integrated character of the project. The inadequate capacity of the project to explain and account for the impact of these initiatives is especially apparent in relation to the public transport initiatives discussed. These public transport initiatives are discussed only as future possibilities rather than as fundamental to the project.
Thus, for example, while the EIS describes the project as a ‘key driver’ for the introduction of a rapid transport solution’ and argues that it ‘supports a coordinated approach to the management of freight and passenger movements, as well as all modes of transport including road, rail, bus, ferries, light rail, cycling and walking’, there is no attempt to explain what qualifiers such as ‘key driver’ and ‘support’ actually mean.
Other attempts to explain the project as a ‘broader integrated transport solution’ rather than a stand-alone road project are similarly inadequate. The EIS argues that investment in the bus network would occur ‘in parallel’ with WestConnex; that ‘once in place, this bus rapid transit route could be upgraded to light rail’; WestConnex ‘may’ allow road space to be reallocated on City Road or Parramatta Road to allocate space to public transport in the University of Sydney corridor; four light rail routes linking to Parramatta CBD are ‘under investigation’, and so on.
Stand-alone Roads project not integrated solution
Rather than seeking to mitigate environmental impact, the Westconnex East project will proceed as a stand-alone roads project that will maximise environmental impact. Public transport alternatives will remain under-funded and under-developed and slower and less convenient than road transport. This in turn will lead to increased levels of car-traffic that will congest Westconnex east more rapidly than would otherwise be the case, increase emissions, reduce amenity create poor health outcomes and so on. These broader phenomena can be encapsulated using the term ‘induced traffic’.
Likely overestimation of demand for road transport services
Secondly, the inadequate capacity of the Westconnex East EIS to explain and account for the impact of these initiatives means that the project will over-estimate demand for its road transport services. This is an important consideration. In Australia and globally, numerous recent large-scale road construction projects have been plagued by exaggerated expectations about demand. As a result, funding and resources have been allocated to unviable road construction projects. Both Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel and Lane Cove Tunnel drove their initial operators into receivership. The developers of Brisbane’s Clem Jones Tunnel Faired no better. The issue is not just limited to Australia. Of the 15.89 million journeys expected be taken between London and Paris during the Channel Tunnel’s first year of operation, a mere 18% of those actually occurred.
Problems with Australia’s record in large-scale road construction
The credibility of Australia’s ongoing investment in large-scale road construction projects has been challenged in recent years at the highest levels.
Recent Australian Productivity Commission and Treasury Inquiries suggest: ‘Decisions are often based on inadequate and non-transparent information and assessment of the costs and benefits of road projects’; ‘Roads are the least reformed of all infrastructure sectors, with institutional arrangements around funding and provision remaining much the same as they were 20 years ago’ (Harper et al 2015; Productivity Commission 2014).
An ‘Australian Infrastructure Audit’ by the independent federal advisory body Infrastructure Australia highlighted the inconsistent ‘use and transparent reporting of cost benefit analyses’. It argued that, while ‘market reforms have significantly improved the efficiency and competitiveness of the energy sector and more recently the telecommunications sector… [there is] a pressing need to commence the task of moving towards alternative institutional and governance arrangements in the roads sector’ (Infrastructure Australia 2015).
The evidence provided by the EIS for Westconnex East regarding Environmental Impact management and minimisation is vague, and unsubstantiated. These inadequacies render the project vulnerable to issues related to induced traffic on the one hand and the exaggeration of demand on the other hand. These inadequacies reflect well-documented, widely recognised trends in the Australian roads sector over recent years. For these reasons the Westconnex East project needs to be fundamentally reconsidered with a view to explaining how and why the project functions as an integrated urban transport solution.
Harper I, Anderson P, McCluskey S, O’Bryan M, 2015, Competition Policy Review: Final Report, (Australian Treasury: Canberra).
Infrastructure Australia, 2015, Australian Infrastructure Audit, Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra)
Productivity Commission 2014, Public Infrastructure, Inquiry Report No. 71, Canberra.
SGS Economics and Planning, 2015, Strategic Review of the Westconnex Proposal: Final Report, City of Sydney.