The road that ate Sydney

Picture a giant pig wearing a top hat hovering over Sydney with its snout in a Macquarie Street trough, and the other end dumping a $40 billion, 33-kilometre pile of concrete on the western suburbs. 

That describes WestConnex, Australia’s largest infrastructure project, smashing its way through communities, turning green into grey and congestion into cash. For dealing with Sydney’s traffic woes, WestConnex is worse than useless; it is like treating a clogged artery with Big Macs and fries in a hospital owned by McDonalds and run by Ronald McDonald.

Once WestConnex is completed, Sydney, already one of the most expensive cities in the world, will have 14 toll roads and be the most heavily tolled city anywhere. Some drivers can expect to pay up to $8,000 per year. Most can’t afford that. 

Figures from 2018 showed that in its first year of operation, the new M4 toll had forced 42,000 cars per day off the once-free road. They ended up travelling on even busier routes such as Parramatta Road.

While western and south-western Sydney get slugged with tolls, inner west residents face the destruction of their suburbs, with enormous on-ramps and interchanges swallowing up streets and parklands, dumping more traffic and pollution-spewing ventilation stacks in their place. For Sydney, it means billions of dollars diverted away from public transport.

Misery for some is a bonanza for others. WestConnex tolls are guaranteed by the government to increase by at least 4 percent annually until 2038, far above inflation and average wage rises, and to apply for more than 40 years. The M5 toll to Sydney’s south-west was due to be abolished soon. It has now been extended to 2060, and with more tolls added. That’s a pretty penny for WestConnex’s new 51 percent owner, Transurban, which already owns seven of Sydney’s toll roads.

Transurban’s business model is crony capitalism 101. Its ranks are littered with former politicians and senior transport public servants. 

The stench surrounding every aspect of WestConnex could fill volumes. Sydney Park was ripped up and hundreds of trees destroyed despite the determined resistance of locals. 

Some 427 homes have been forcibly acquired for below-market prices and their residents evicted. Residents who refused to go quietly were arrested. When inner west councils opposed WestConnex in 2016, they were forcibly amalgamated and closed for 16 months, with all elected councillors sacked. Unelected Liberal-appointed administrators unsurprisingly raised no objections as construction began.

The government remains committed to community consultation though: for one of its 100-metre long construction sheds, local residents will get to have their say over what colour the shed will be painted! The exciting options are three shades of grey.

Meanwhile, tunnelling has left residents in Strathfield, Concord and Homebush with cracked and crumbling walls. WestConnex, incredibly, is denying its tunnelling works directly beneath those homes is to blame for the cracking, and is refusing to pay compensation. With WestConnex stage three tunnelling set to begin, hundreds more homes from Haberfield to St Peters face a similar fate.

WestConnex is just one of many infrastructure disasters plaguing Sydney, from the privatisation-by-stealth of railways via the new Metro and closing hospitals on the northern beaches, to the explosion of low quality, yet overpriced, shoebox apartments with no consideration for quality of life. The common cause has nothing to do with rapid population growth or immigration, as the politicians would have us believe. It is due to city planning being subordinated to the profits of private developers.

With the NSW election on 23 March, the Berejiklian Liberal government deserves to be punished. The problem is that their agenda is merely a continuation of Labor’s approach throughout its many years in office. Then-premier Bob Carr championed the template of public-private partnerships, toll roads, developer profits over communities, while stirring up anger at immigrants – a rotten tradition continued by NSW Labor today. 

Whoever forms government must be fought on all these fronts.

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Join the “Fix NSW” protest at 1pm Sunday 3 March at Hyde Park North.