Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Secret western Sydney infrastructure review ignored in federal budget

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It asked the federal government to urgently fund strategic and final business cases for several road and public transport projects in the May 2023 budget, noting significant investment was already underway in NSW and the market had no capacity to commence more projects at present.

It provided early recommendations to federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine King in March, so they could be considered for the budget – although NSW was in caretaker mode at that time. The panel called for immediate funding of business cases for:

  • Extending the airport metro to south Glenfield and north to Tallawong.
  • Upgrading the Cumberland line between Schofields and Leppington.
  • Seven priority road corridors around Western Sydney Airport.
  • Duplicating and extending Cambridge Avenue in Glenfield.
  • Upgrading The Northern Road from Borrowdale to Londonderry.
  • A broad network review of road, rail and active transport west of Blacktown.

Western Sydney Airport under construction in June. It is due to open in 2026.Credit: Brook Mitchell

It also recommended urgent funding for three pilot programs to improve walkability and public access in western Sydney, as well as money for land-use planning and sustainability research. In total, the panel asked for $200 million this year to get projects started.

The May budget allocated $200 million over two years to the national Major Projects Business Case Fund, but it was not clear which, if any, Sydney projects would benefit.

A spokeswoman for King said: “Specific commitments will be determined as part of future budget decisions and in consultation with state and territory governments.” She said the Commonwealth was already contributing $3.5 billion to the Western Sydney Infrastructure Plan and noted state governments generally lead the identification and planning of road and rail priorities.

The expert panel’s final report was also copied to the NSW government. Labor will deliver its first state budget since 2010 this month, and it has promised $40 million for a business case to extend the airport metro north to Tallawong.

The report said one reason a metro line from Tallawong to St Marys was so critical is it would run through the growth area of Marsden Park and the highly disadvantaged suburbs of north of Mount Druitt such as Bidwill, Willmot and Tregear, providing opportunity to renew ageing social housing.

Priorities listed by the panel as “moderate” included quadrupling the T1 western line between St Marys and Penrith, and duplicating the Richmond line between Schofields and Vineyard, which is currently a single track. The report noted Riverstone, which sits between those two stations, has been rezoned as an employment centre for up to 30,000 jobs.

The expert panel did not examine the Metro West project between the CBD and Westmead, now in limbo, nor a possible extension from Westmead to the new airport, which NSW Labor has shelved. But it said in general, it supported “lesser distances between new [Metro] stations”, instead of the large gaps (three to four kilometres) on Sydney’s current and planned metro network.

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The review was scathing about western Sydney buses, saying frequency was “poor” and there was little evidence of efficient feeder services to facilitate rail access in suburbs away from train lines.

It said in many greenfield development areas such as Oran Park – 13 kilometres from the nearest train station – “buses are the only means of public transport and have key bus route roads that are too narrow to accommodate them”.

The panel members were hand-picked by King in consultation with then-NSW cities minister Rob Stokes. It was chaired by then-Western Parkland City Authority boss Sarah Hill, and comprised of senior bureaucrats David Mackay and Kiersten Fishburn, council executives Kerry Robinson and Lindy Deitz, business representatives Sue Lawrence and David Borger, and academics Andy Marks and Awais Piracha.

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But the experts were divided about whether to present a bureaucratic report with a detailed list of options or a big-picture overview that made the case for just a few major endeavours, according to panel members who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report was still confidential.

The government’s failure to release the report publicly or act on its recommendations also irked panel members, with one anonymously complaining to the media in July that “a lot of time and effort that went into it” and “everyone would be disappointed nothing has happened with it”.

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