The Parliamentary inquiry into WestConnex is the type of thing that should happen before any major infrastructure project starts. However, it let the supporters of the project off too lightly. [i]
As John Menadue and I argue for public inquiries into infrastructure projects – notably Sydney Metro – it is pertinent to consider the recent report of such an inquiry into WestConnex. [ii]
WestConnex, originally conceived as urban renewal – ‘beautification’ of Parramatta Rd - has morphed into Australia’s most costly road program. Its publicised purpose is to allow easier driving between Sydney’s south-west and CBD. [iii]
It comprises a series of mega road projects: extension of the M4 to near Sydney’s CBD, duplication of the M5 near Sydney airport and a new underground motorway between the two. The much-touted link to Port Botany and Sydney Airport has been reclassed as a different project, presumably to minimise embarrassment from yet another cost overrun. Initially costed in 2011 at $11bn, the present estimate – made in 2015 - is around $17bn. [iv]
The program, part financed by privatising early projects to pay for later ones, is being undertaken by a public-private partnership. The Commonwealth is making a substantial contribution – the pre-matureness of which attracted ‘scathing’ criticism from the Audit Office. [v]
There is a veil of secrecy around its merits and vociferous opposition from inner Sydney communities.
The inquiry was established by the NSW upper house in June 2018. It was chaired by the Hon. Fred Nile of the Christian Democratic Party. Its six other members comprised three from the Coalition (Government), two from the Labor Party and one from the Greens.
Terms of reference were set by the inquiry. 568 submissions were received, public hearings were held, transcripts etc. were published. Its report, released 19 December 2018, was presented as supporting and opposing the project! [vi]
The report made 16 findings and 27 recommendations. The first: there should be a public inquiry into each major infrastructure project before construction starts.
It damned the process behind WestConnex, concealment of information – including from the Committee - and treatment of citizens severely affected by the project.
Yet it recommended WestConnex proceed. The reasons: an assumption a motorway is needed; the fact it is being built.
Four Committee members dissented. While the dissents took opposing views, the report’s findings were largely unchallenged. Only one – by Dr Phelps (Coalition) - challenged the value of the inquiry.
Assessment of the report
The report was more confident on straightforward matters where there was direct evidence – e.g. local residents being disadvantaged by construction; the process behind WestConnex omitting several important steps.
It considered a range of matters including health effects, traffic and tolls. It supported the program’s finance model, although the basis of its endorsement is unclear.
However, in dealing with myriad matters it missed the two central questions:
- The transport effects of WestConnex;
- Why ‘independent’ experts disagree on pivotal matters.
To the extent WestConnex is ‘successful’ it will attract traffic into – through – Sydney’s CBD. This includes new car trips and - worse - diversion of trips from suburban routes into central areas.
One implication: more motorways will be ‘needed’ to re-divert traffic just diverted into the city area. Re-diversion appears to be the ‘strategic’ purpose of the mooted northern beaches link to the Warringah district and the F6 to the south towards Wollongong. Construction costs of these roads is estimated at least $32bn. [vii]
This is so perverse as to imply real motivations for WestConnex are not transport or urban renewal. More likely: road building for its own sake. Together with non-disclosure of the business case, hyper-sensitivity to criticism and deletions from the program to avoid perceptions of endless cost overruns the picture is of Government beatification of motorways rather than tidying up Parramatta Rd.
The inquiry should have considered whether cancelling WestConnex would be more effective and cheaper than incurring such sums and other road costs.
The report observed, but did not comment on, conflicts among officials and - more importantly - the opposing views of ‘independent experts’ Infrastructure Australia and SGS Economics. The former supported the program, the latter did not.
It is unsatisfactory for the report to leave such a fundamental conflict unresolved. The job of a public inquiry is to determine such questions.
Given SGS’s challenge it was also a mistake for the inquiry to accept WestConnex as worthwhile without strong evidence – the ‘business case’ is not public and was not apparently subpoenaed. The inquiry should not have assumed any new motorway is needed, and it should have discounted unsubstantiated NSW Government – proponent – claims about project merit and ‘commercial confidentiality’.
Infrastructure Australia’s slim positive assessment should have been ignored. For one thing, as raised in Pearls and Irritations in 2017, it wrongly assumed the link to Botany and Sydney Airport was in the program. [viii]
For another its assessments are not properly independent – criteria are inadequate with undue reliance on proponents for information. Also, as made clear by the NSW Auditor General, alternatives to WestConnex were not considered. The inquiry should have refrained from any support of WestConnex unless and until proponents provided compelling evidence and rebutted the views of e.g. SGS.
Infrastructure Australia’s assessment is irrelevant.
For another its assessments are not properly independent - criteria are inadequate and there is undue reliance on project proponents for information.
Also, as made clear by the NSW Auditor General alternatives to WestConnex were not really considered.
The inquiry should have required proponents to fully justify WestConnex and rebut the views of e.g. SGS.
The WestConnex public inquiry is beneficial in bringing significant matters to public attention.
The electorate is now in a better position to pass judgement.
However, it missed the essential characteristic of WestConnex – a ‘need’ to build more motorways in Sydney to mitigate the mess it’s about to make.
Given this, the unresolved conflict among experts, and the continuing lack of transparency by the Government, its recommendation the program proceed is mistaken.
The recommendation is likely to reinforce the behaviour criticised in the report.
Future public inquiries should be tougher and only recommend projects whose merit is transparent and proven – the default position should be ‘not recommended’.
Such inquiries are important. However, they need to be tougher and have stronger support – like Mr Christie's public inquiry into Sydney public transport. [ix]
John Austen is a happily-retired Sydney western suburbs dweller. An extended version of this article entitled 'Urban Admonitions' can be found here and on his website The Jade Beagle.
[viii] see note iv above.