It is appropriate that the O'Farrell be pressured to keep its public transport promises.
But that doesn't mean that no new roads should be built under any circumstances.
Certainly when it comes to chosing between a road project and public transport project, it would be tough to convince me that the road project is a better option.
|Photo from here|
Having said that, there is a place for the Public Private Partnerships that the Labor government was so enamoured with. Many of the roads we now have were built at little or no cost to the public purse, meaning that the government had funds available to spend on public transport.
The fact that, for the most part, they failed to do so is a separate issue. PPP's are, in principle, a good idea. User pays to drive, which seems like an eminently sensible way to give commuters the option they often need, but also encourage public transport for those who are able.
|Cross-City Tunnel - an adject (financial) failure. Map from here|
|Map from the RMS website|
The road is 2 lanes for most of its length. Labor negotiated at length with Interlink to widen the road to 3 lanes, but it appears that agreement was never reached.
As part of the election campaign, O'Farrell promised that the road would be widened, and he has now signed a contract the deliver on that promise.
The original plan had been that the toll collection period be extended by 4 years.
Labor had, during the campaign, criticised that option, saying that it was $680 million (tolls of $170 million per year times 4 years) in exchange for a project that would cost $350 million. Of course, that ignored the obvious fact that it was $680 million 13 years from now in exchange for $350 million worth now, which any first year actuarial student will tell you is a very different proposition.
In any event, agreement has now been reached on the following terms:
- tolls collection period extended for 3 years
- truck toll to increase from 2.5 times to car toll to 3 times
- the government to contribute $50 million in noise abatement
Usually, widenings like this only achieve something if they occur at the bottle neck. I almost never drive on the M5, and don't think I have ever done so in peak hour, but I understand that the main bottle-neck is at the M5 tunnel.
This article suggests that a duplication of the tunnel would be enormously expensive - some $4 billion. With the other promises that O'Farrell has to fund, that would seem to be thoroughly beyond the government's means.
|The tunnel entrance. Photo from here|
That would seem to be consistent with a traffic study that suggests that the widening will decrease the rate at which traffic levels build up on the road.
At the end of the day, this deal appears to cost the government very little, and may actually result in a significant benefit to many drivers. True, in the fullness of time traffic will expand to fill this new space - but user pays means that this new traffic will provide significant income to the government once the tolls are removed in 2026.
There is one final thing to be said - the Cashback scheme. This is amongst the dumbest ideas a NSW government has ever had. Private vehicles who use the M5 are entitled to claim back their tolls. Why? It's hard to say.
Now that Cashback is in operation there is no way that O'Farrell could "sell" a proposal to remove it. That's roughly $100 million per year that could be far, far better spent.
But I suppose that's the kind of thing we've come to expect.