Matters of Public Importance, Wednesday 13 March 2013
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (16:49): I congratulate Senator Scott Ludlam for moving this matter of public importance on the acute urban challenges in Australian cities. An urgent challenge facing our major cities is solving the growing traffic congestion crisis. Traffic congestion is costing Australia $9 billion a year and estimates say that that will reach about $20 billion by 2020. It is $9 billion already—think of the lost jobs and the lost productivity for business. This is a huge issue.
When I joined the New South Wales parliament in 1999, Sydney residents and businesses were already stuck in traffic jams. You could not wind down your windows on a hot day because the air pollution was so bad. You could not let your kids ride their bikes on the clogged roads. Buses and trains were lagging behind population growth. In the New South Wales parliament the Greens regularly spoke up for public transport and against motorway expansion, but through the 2000s things only got worse. Labor, with the support of the coalition, changed laws to benefit big developers and motorway builders. CityRail's late-running trains became a political crisis. The only way out for the Labor government that they saw was to slash the train timetables. The trains may have run on time for a period, but we got reduced services. The Roads and Traffic Authority was all powerful in this era and, instead of expanding the CityRail network as a priority, the government's road budget was triple the transport budget. We got more motorways and more traffic jams as a result. We got more urban sprawl, not serviced with public transport, and public land was sold off to private developers, locking up strategic transport corridors. Every year the problem grew bigger and the solutions became more costly.
In Sydney there has been a succession of failed toll roads, motorways and tunnels that have simply induced more traffic on our roads. The M5 East tunnel became so heavily congested that the government had to advise motorists to keep their windows closed. The M5, M4 and M2 motorways are like parking lots in the morning and evening peak. The Cross City Tunnel and Lane Cove Tunnel ventures were white elephants that faltered under the weight of rubbery traffic modelling that underpinned their base case financial models
The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has reported:
In general, the forecasting performance for toll roads in the world has been found to be poorer than for toll-free roads. There is an asymmetrical patterns of forecasting errors, that is, consistent overestimation. Australia is no exception.
And certainly Sydney saw it up close: so much of the cost when the motorways went under came back to the public. So often road projects are built on these false promises. They make wildly optimistic claims to reduce traffic congestion and divert focus and funds away from urgently needed improvements to the public transport network.
Melbourne and Brisbane have similar toll road problems. Melbourne has a myriad of motorways and toll roads and yet traffic continues to grow. The latest road project, the East-West Tunnel, has been described as the next toll road white elephant. It is being compared to the BrisConnections Airport Link toll road that went into receivership last year.
Senator Ian Macdonald: Pretty good road, though!
Senator RHIANNON: What a foolish interjection. The Greens in Melbourne are campaigning for new east-west public transport links, improved services and an investment in a real metro network. The travelling public want better public transport too, but the government is firmly backing the toll road.
It does not have to be this way. Tonight I have the pleasure of speaking at the launch of the Moving Australia 2030 report and I very warmly congratulate those who have worked on this outstanding document. It is a vision for integrated and sustainable transport and land-use planning that the Greens have shared and advocated for over 20 years, a world-class sustainable transport network servicing green, livable cities. It is a clear, bold vision for tackling the fundamental transport challenges of the 21st century: climate change, energy security, population growth, public health and quality of life. The Moving People 2030 Taskforce is made up of the local government association, planning, public transport and bicycle groups, and the Heart Foundation. I think the authors have done an excellent job. It is an exciting collaboration which will inform and influence decision makers at every level of government if they are willing to allow that to happen. It is exactly the kind of integrated approach that we need for transport planning and future-proofing our cities.
The Greens have a longstanding record of support for public transport, cycling and walking. We have worked hard in state and local governments for community-driven planning decisions that elevate the principles of ecologically sustainable development and promote clean air and healthy lifestyles. We have campaigned for the preservation of integrated land-use planning to halt urban sprawl, create more livable suburbs and secure strategic corridors and green spaces for the future.
There are fundamental reasons why this sustainable cities vision is still to be realised despite the overwhelming public support and strong economic and environmental grounds. For eight years in New South Wales, the Greens campaigned to expose the undue influence of developer donations in New South Wales. Our work and that of many community groups resulted in a ban on developer donations and then a ban on all corporate donations. The campaign was grounded in the idea that greedy developers and corporations were buying influence to win favourable planning decisions. For a dark decade in New South Wales under the Labor government, while the vested interests of developers trumped the public interest, these developers donated $20 million—over $12 million to the New South Wales Labor Party and over $7.5 million to the coalition in opposition. At the height of these donations in 2005 the Labor, Liberal and National parties joined forces to pass the now infamous part 3A planning laws that eroded the state's planning controls and led to an ad hoc growth strategy. The major parties put part 3A on the map. It was used to rubber-stamp bad developments based on concept plans, with minimal environmental assessment and without meaningful community consultation.
The losers were Sydney residents who now live in poorly planned suburbs and who struggle every day with worsening air quality, long travel times on congested roads and an ailing public transport network to get to and from work. This is costing Sydney's economy billions of dollars and making our city less livable. The situation is not intractable, however. But it will take a huge commitment and support of the state and federal governments to overcome this legacy. The problems in New South Wales have spread much wider than Sydney. In the Hunter Valley there has been a strong local campaign to improve public transport and for better land-use planning.
The community are calling for the retention of Newcastle rail. Successive governments in New South Wales, Labor and coalition, are for ripping up heavy rail that goes into the heart of Newcastle, something that should be used to help develop that city in the most livable way. The federal Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport's Hunter division has produced an excellent report that showcases a range of planning strategies to make Hunter communities more livable and more sustainable to grow the local community beyond coal. But the Department of Infrastructure and Transport is not funding this excellent work. Instead, the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Mr Anthony Albanese, has pledged a $3.5 billion investment in a new coal rail line for the Hunter Valley's fourth coal loader in Newcastle Harbour—yes, that is $3.5 billion. Mr Albanese might try and call this money for freight public transport, but the reality is that it is assistance to the coal industry and robbing money for public transport and for integrated planning.
The problem is not confined to New South Wales. Every capital city carries a backlog of public transport infrastructure. Major regional centres need improved passenger connection with the surrounding communities. We could carry a massive increase in bicycle and walking infrastructure in major cities and centres across the country. For the Moving Australia 2030 recommendations to become reality we will require a huge shift both in the car culture that still dominates and in the funding bias that grossly favours roads over public and active transport. The federal government, through the excellent strategies outlined by the Major Cities Unit and the department of regional development, has set the right direction.
What will it take for the government to get on board and make the shift to fund more public transport and active transport infrastructure projects? There are huge gains to be made for our economy and for our community and the environment. Now is the time for Minister Albanese to show leadership and to step up support for public transport and active transport infrastructure funding support—support that is critical to making our cities more livable.