Timid NSW transport policy shows Labor and Coalition have taken their feet off the accelerator

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Sydney has seen a boom in public transport and road construction over the past decade, but the hitherto timid transport policies of the New South Wales election raise concerns that the foot is off the accelerator.

The key policy differences that will emerge between the Coalition and Labor concern both sides’ plans to extend the tube network westwards, pavement solutions to cover the cost of commuting through Sydney’s toll chaos and support for a controversial tunnel.

Sydney’s public transport and road network looks very different today than it did when the NSW coalition came to power in 2011, but the government’s legacy remains mixed to this day. The Stadtbahn can be counted as a success: Trams are again running through the city, partly along the now revitalized pedestrian zone in the city centre.

Related: NSW Greens propose making public transport free – and pet-friendly

Commuters also got a taste of 21st century rail technology with the first section of the Sydney Metro. While the wait was long, the highly visible construction dates allowed residents to plan where they wanted to work and live. When the expanded line opens in the coming years, it will move people around the city faster. If you live near train stations, you might think twice before driving.

Then there were more controversial projects like WestConnex and the vast network of privatized roads charging high tolls that Sydneysiders will have to travel on for decades to come, with those in the West taking the biggest pinch.

While travel times have improved, the trip from Bankstown to Barangaroo will cost you more than $56. Tolls will gradually increase and the time saved by taking the roads is likely to decrease as the direct route encourages more car use in western Sydney.

Labor is banking on the frustration of what it calls Sydney’s ‘Tollmania’ amid the cost of living crisis. Opposition leader Chris Minns has proposed capping a person’s weekly toll spend at $60, which is more generous than the coalition’s existing rebate system. But the toll relief policies of both sides will ultimately be borne by taxpayers, not private operators.

If Minns becomes prime minister, he won’t be able to decipher the omelette that is Sydney’s mishmash of private toll deals, but he has vowed to keep the West Harbor tunnel crossing under construction in public hands.

An important political difference is the Beaches Link tunnel. The project, which was promised to halt traffic on Sydney’s car-dependent North Beaches, has faced years of squabbling, including from neighboring communities with environmental concerns.

Minns has promised to scrap it. The Perrottet government insists it is committed to the tunnel pending planning permits, but has curiously held back on the project. The Beaches Link was not mentioned in any coalition press release this year, and no timeline has been set for construction.

Labor has also said it is looking into reversing privatizations of bus contracts it says are hurting service quality – and prompting frustrated residents to fund their own ‘pirate’ buses.

But there are now fears that the deepening national debt will weaken the political will to keep the momentum in building major urban design projects.

And here lies the clearest political difference: the expenditure for the subway expansion.

The Perrottet Government will advance business cases for four lines to be linked to Sydney’s future West Airport. Labor will proceed with only two, with the coalition accusing them of abandoning western Sydney, an area earmarked for exceptional housing development in the years to come.

While Labour’s hesitation stems from the position of financial responsibility it is keen to project, the coalition has been cornered into backing down on further privatization to fund infrastructure construction.

After all, these Metro pledges are for business cases only, meaning they’re far from a guarantee, especially under Perrottet.

This month, Guardian Australia revealed that the state government has quietly halted work on the latest business case to build its own rapid transit line between Sydney and Newcastle. This is despite four years and around $100 million spent on feasibility studies for the policies that led Gladys Berejiklian to the 2019 election.

The abandonment of ambition has led to concern. The state’s groundbreaking six-city policy to spread population growth outside of Sydney is now doomed to fail.

Related: The British professor behind the NSW rapid rail strategy has criticized the coalition for dropping the plan

But even Labor does not support a dedicated rapid transit system, something it knows will be seriously costly and of no visible benefit before the next election.

The shyness of both parties worries the city planners.

“We’re still lagging behind on transport infrastructure,” said Eamon Waterford, the committee’s new chief executive for Sydney, who was chief strategy officer in the Department of Investment and Trade until February. “Sydney is growing fast, we may never catch up, but we should do our best.

“It’s like eating an elephant, you have to do it piece by piece.”

In its priorities for a future NSW government, published on Friday, the committee is urging progress on underground and rapid transit projects.

“We have a lot of people in Sydney now who are very good at building things,” Waterford said. “If we take our foot off the accelerator, that know-how will go somewhere else.”

Whoever wins the election, the task of tackling congested roads, reducing post-Covid public transport use and easing the growing pains as Sydney expands is immense.


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