NSW Transport Minister David Elliott is pouring cold water on speculation that the state government is looking to cancel key infrastructure projects, hinting that new projects, such as a major Newcastle light rail expansion, were on the drawing boards.
The Minister’s speech was delivered on the morning an Infrastructure NSW report recommending delays to several high-profile infrastructure projects due to an overheated construction market, was leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald.
- SCROLL DOWN TO SEE WHAT THE MINISTER SAID ABOUT NEWCASTLE LIGHT RAIL AND FAST TRAINS
The strategy recommends delaying several major projects that have been announced but not funded, including the Beaches Link, a tunnel under the Blue Mountains, the second stage of Parramatta Light Rail and some stages of Sydney Metro.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Property Council breakfast on Tuesday morning attracted a larger than usual contingent of transport planners and construction companies working on rail infrastructure.
There was, for example, chatter from transport industry professionals in the crowd who had flown up from Melbourne about how Victoria’s public transport privatisation in the ‘90s, under Premier Jeff Kennett, had led to Yarra Trams’ back office being gutted.
Minister Elliott sought to reassure the property industry, who were concerned about rail projects near their developments being canned, along with the larger-than-usual transport contingent, that short-sighted state bureaucrats weren’t about to pull the rug out from under major rail projects.
“We are committed to making sure that those projects that you, your members and your employees rely on so much. We want to make sure that you have surety in your businesses,” he said.
Transport infrastructure labour market less overheated than for property
Recent speculation around the finances of home builder Metricon have highlighted skills shortages in the building sector. The Minister claims the transport infrastructure isn’t as heated as some people suggest, and that more transport investment is needed to support migration.
“I can assure you, in the transport space, infrastructure construction is not at capacity. The industry, who are the ones who employ the people and sign the contracts, is telling me that they’re at about 72 per cent of capacity,” Minister Elliott said.
“And those critics of the current infrastructure spend the saying, ‘well, we have to prepare for more immigration. We have to encourage more immigration’. That’s exactly right. That’s the reason why we can’t take our foot off the pedal when it comes to infrastructure.”
The Minister was also scathing of the view that smaller infrastructure projects are less risky than large one, and that governments should manage their risk by focusing on smaller projects.
“Well, as somebody who spent a number of years working parallel to the Property Council as the CEO of the Civil Contractors Federation, I say baloney. I can assure you that smaller projects have just as much risk,” Minister Elliott said.
“In fact, some would argue that smaller projects create more risk because smaller projects don’t have the contingencies that the larger projects can offer. They don’t have the capability to retain the workforce that larger projects offer. They are still costly.”
Minister Elliott likened the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge after the First World War by John Bradfield as “a symbol of better things to come” and “surety”, to the post-pandemic hope that is being provided by his government’s major rail projects.
“We want to make sure that we are fiscally responsible and that sometimes does mean that we need to deliberate and recalibrate and rebase our projects, but it doesn’t mean we walk away from them. That would not be courageous,” he said.
“That is not what governments do. Governments have to be courageous. And it would be just as challenging to our future generations if we walked away from building infrastructure as it would be if we just left them with a great big debt without anything to show for it.”
Newcastle and Parramatta light rail extensions on the cards
Far from announcing that major rail projects were being culled, Minister Elliott hinted some new ones might be on the drawing boards – including a big expansion of Newcastle’s light rail network to Charlestown. The suburb is roughly eight kilometres southwest of the tram network’s current terminus at the Newcastle Interchange.
“The benefit of Newcastle is also its burden, and that is that it’s spread out. The CBD isn’t like Sydney CBD where you can identify the footprint. Much of the blue collar workforces are on the north side or in Stockton. The retail is clearly Charlestown these days and the administrative area is Hunter Street,” he said.
“My view is that light rail is going to have to expand, and it’ll have to expand to include better connectivity with the retail districts down at Charlestown, which is obviously something that hasn’t been forecasted, and at least some connectivity, and I don’t mean a dirty old diesel bus, between the CBD and the airport.”
There were also clear smiles in some corners of the room as the Minister discussed plans to extend the Parramatta light rail network to serve Billbergia’s Wentworth Point development, which is north of Sydney Olympic Park.
“Wentworth Point was obviously built with the view that public transport options would be there and they will be there. We cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. We will always make sure that we make sure we operate this government with fiscal responsibility, and we will always make sure that there is certainty for industry.”
While declining to mention a specific timeline for the project — “if I did say anything at this stage, I’d be fired” — the Minister strongly hinted that an announcement would be coming very soon.
“All I can really say is watch this space. I’m committed to it. The government is committed to it. If I was going to slip up and say anything inappropriate, I would say the only debate at the moment is time,” he said.
Faster trains to Canberra or Newcastle?
One project that doesn’t have the Minister’s support is a very fast train to Melbourne, with airfares now available for as little as $99.
“Sydney to Canberra is probably the most realistic option. Do we have critical mass for the infrastructure spend? Probably not. Would it benefit Sydney? Yes, it would, because it would also alleviate slots at Sydney airport, which will probably be a redundant argument once the second Sydney airport is built anyway.
“Maybe you could argue that this critical mass in Sydney and Newcastle to justify it for the sake of an extra half an hour. I would say to taxpayers it’s a huge burden and just commit ourselves to a faster train, as opposed to a very fast train.”
Finally, the biggest laugh of the morning came when Minister Elliott described his discussions with Treasurer Matt Kean over funding to upgrade Sydney’s bus fleet to electric vehicles.
“The only time Kean isn’t a green is when I ask him for money to replace buses for electric ones.”