A slide from Tim Williams' presentation.

When Committee for Sydney chief executive Tim Williams called out the WestConnex motorway as a poor solution to Sydney’s transport woes, we breathed a sigh of relief.

Great, a prominent business think tank standing up for Sydney’s long-term interests.

Williams’ presentation at the University of Sydney summed up what the experts have been telling us for years: “It’s a delusion to think you can reduce congestion by building roads – only road pricing and extra public transport connectivity can achieve that,” Williams said; roads lead to sprawl and dispersed, low-density development; car use has peaked though we are still designing our cities around cars; the full business case for mega-projects needs to be released.

So it was a shame to see this week a retraction from Williams (co-signed by chair Lucy Turnbull), published as a letter in the Sydney Morning Herald.

“The Committee for Sydney board and chief executive would like to clarify that Tim Williams’ talk on April 30 expressed his personal opinion,” the letter stated. “We have long supported the principle of a well-integrated WestConnex project which combines improved travel times and reduced congestion, and enables the creation of more housing and urban renewal along Parramatta Road.”

The problem, though, and one Williams pointed out in his presentation, is that the WestConnex as it stands isn’t likely to be well-integrated, reduce congestion or lead to the urban renewal of Parramatta Road.

Modelling by SGS Economics for the City of Sydney recently found that traffic to Parramatta Road would increase by over 20 per cent under the project, prompted by drivers attempting to avoid hefty tolls to be levied on the M4 and M4 eastern extension, a finding the report said was consistent with the WestConnex Delivery Authority’s own assessment.

Nothing like a congested road to revitalise an area.

On that note, the revitalisation of the Parramatta Road corridor, which we’re promised will provide up to 50,000 new dwellings along with associated commercial development opportunities, has been severed from the delivery of the WestConnex.

Link Place’s Sara Stace told The Fifth Estate the government had abandoned the Parramatta Road component, with the property industry left adrift.

“Property developers should care about this, because Parramatta Road’s revitalisation is no longer part of the delivery of WestConnex,” Stace said.

This, by the way, was echoed by Lucy Turnbull last year at a Tourism and Transport Forum, a move she labelled then as “unfortunate”.

Congestion busting wasn’t such a certain outcome, either. In the inner city, increased congestion would jeopardise the City of Sydney’s Green Square and Ashmore urban renewal projects, as well as 31,000 vehicles a day let out at the St Peters interchange by 2021. And as the presentation noted, induced demand would see any congestion alleviation soon disappear.

All in all the SGS Economics report painted a dire picture, where the multi-billion-dollar project would provide only marginal improvements over a “do nothing” scenario.

So it seems that what the Committee for Sydney says it is championing does not exist, even on the admission of its chair.

The Committee for Sydney calls itself “an independent think tank and champion for the whole of Sydney” that represents “no one sector or interest”.

“We seek to bring all parts of the city together so that Sydney can ‘collaborate to compete’ more effectively,” it states.

It develops “big city long-term thinking and aim[s] to be visionary”.

So why is it insisting on providing support for a project our top urban development minds tell us is a dud?

Fairfax reported that Ms Turnbull added a statement to a note sent out to members following the media reports and retraction, saying, “We will always be a platform for both collaboration and challenge to ensure Sydney gets the policies it needs. But we do this without controversy and on the basis of evidence and that will always be our approach.”

Firstly, whether a particular view garners controversy should be besides the point in championing a better Sydney. In this case the media picked up on the story partly because the Committee’s members included those expected to benefit from the project – big construction and road companies as well as the Department of Planning and Infrastructure. The board also features the likes of UrbanGrowth NSW, the NRMA and Lend Lease.

Hopefully Turnbull wasn’t indicating that this controversy around the Committee’s member organisations was a reason not to be critical of WestConnex. Unfortunately those wary of governments and lobby groups trying to push through road projects without any clear rationale must wonder.

Hopefully instead it was a reference to Williams calling out the hostile and divisive rhetoric of WestConnex Delivery Authority chief executive Dennis Cliche, who painted the WestConnex opposition as one of privileged inner-city bike-riding objectionists against hard-working Western suburb battlers just trying to make a living.

Indeed, it probably was not a good idea to make such a statement that could be construed as having been made on behalf of an organisation.

Williams made a good point, though; the WestConnex would entrench socioeconomic divide, not alleviate it. It was a “low productivity, low wage, high transport cost vision of ‘equity’ for Western Sydney”, the presentation said.

Turnbull’s second point, that the Committee works on the basis of evidence, seems a stretch in the context of support for the WestConnex. The evidence on the failure of roads to tackle congestion is so thoroughly proven internationally, it’s becoming a joke that mega-road development is still being pushed as an adequate solution in Australia. Add to this modelling that places more traffic onto Parramatta Road, jeopardising urban renewal, and there’s little left in the Committee’s statement of support for “a well-integrated WestConnex project which combines improved travel times and reduced congestion, and enables the creation of more housing and urban renewal along Parramatta Road”.

So will the WestConnex lessen congestion? Slightly, in some parts, for a while, the SGS report says. Is it the best use of billions in taxpayer dollars to achieve this outcome? Most likely not. That’s not to say better roads aren’t part of the solution. As SGS recommends, better use of the existing road network could be achieved by alleviating bottlenecks and introducing pricing mechanisms to reduce peak loads, as well as through more investment in public transport.

We don’t think WestConnex is visionary “big city long-term thinking”, and on the balance of evidence to date the Committee for Sydney shouldn’t either.

Sydney deserves better.

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  1. Hi, I’m Alison Chen and I’m the Youth Member for Strathfield in this years YMCA NSW Youth Parliament. I’m doing a petition regarding the lack of community consultation about the Parramatta Road Urban Renewal strategy. Here’s the link for more information and to sign the petition: https://www.change.org/p/nsw-government-restart-the-community-consultation-process-on-the-parramatta-road-urban-renewal-strategy
    Please sign and share to help make a difference.

  2. Agree with Penny on this and reference earlier 5thE article on UNSW roundtable
    We desperately need strategic regional outcomes that can bypass vested interest pollies, blinkered State Govt silos and blinded local BANANAS. This can only come from a broader design thinking approach on “overall metropolitan strategy, economic development, city-shaping infrastructure, public transport and major urban renewal projects like the Bays Precinct.” (Marcus Spiller) through new governance and decision making models such as New Democracy (Luca Belgiorno-Netis) mixed with council amalgamations or stronger ROC’s, that long overdue Greater Sydney Commission and some real political courage – Rob Stokes?

  3. Anyone who believes that a freeway upgrade can solve a traffic issue should check out the ‘improved’ performance of the M2 since last years extra lane makeover was completed.

  4. Yes Sydney deserves a lot better. Is there not a conflict of interest with regard Lucy Turnbull’s comments and stance. Mrs Turnbull is married to a member of the current government a government that does not support public transport and who’s ‘leader” has a chapter in his book titled ‘Kings in Their Own Cars”, which lays out the case for major new investment in motorways in Australian cities and less investment in ”inefficient, over-manned, union-dominated, government-run train and bus systems”.
    Maybe Mrs Turnbull should absent herself from any comments regarding West Connex and listen to people who have experience and knowledge of the issues which she clearly does not.