Sunday, August 29, 2010

1999 to 2010. No vision on transport issues in Canberra

Today’s ( 29 August 2010) Sunday Canberra Times carries a story on cabinet deliberations of the Carnell Government in the 1999/2000 period. Two of the items ‘exposed’ are still relevant to the residents of Canberra who suffer from the same stunted thinking of today’s ACT Government. Nothing in politics has changed from 1999.

The first one concerns the predictions that traffic coming out of Gungahlin would cause traffic problems and congestion as Gungahlins population increased. Cabinet were told in 1999 that duplicating Flemington Road would cause ‘rat runs’ (they did it anyway). The government were told about the congestion problems with inadequate roads and increased construction and still permitted building without adequate road infrastructure (let alone public transport infrastructure) in place.

The second, and of even greater interest is the revelation that Bishop Austrans were ‘enticed’ to set-up in the ACT, with some vague promise by the Carnell government of payroll tax refunds. Its not totally clear what other promises were made. The article also mentions that a Civic, Airport, Parliamentary Triangle circuit was mooted. Its not entirely clear how far along these discussions went, but Bishop Austrans never moved to Canberra and the Carnell government was strongly anti-public transport in general, so this part of the Canberra Times story really requires further explanation.

But lets go back to 1999. Gungahlin in 1999 was mainly just Palmerston and a burger van in the town centre. Its real growth only came post 2002. Even in 1999 traffic was heavy in the ‘peak hour’ with Gungahlin Drive and Gundaroo Drive being the only real roads in and out. These roads were, and continue to be, jammed solid during peak times, even with the Gungahlin Drive extension (single lane, as is ACT Roads penny pinching way) in place.

The inability to properly construct access roads to a new town of 30,000 people is something that the Carnell Government should always be remembered for, but the Stanhope Government has continued its ‘small vision’ approach since it was elected. Its preferred solution is to construct single lane access roads, and then several years later perhaps upgrade them to dual lane. A single vehicle accident on these roads blocks traffic completely.

A proper planning approach would be to firstly build proper dual lane road access in and out of a new town with multiple access points, and with connections to other major roads. Starting off with single lane and then upgrading continually for ten years is a ridiculous waste of money. Flemington Roads is at present being upgraded again, with roads surfaces laid down, torn up and re-laid again. Several times as each annual upgrade plan is funded.

‘Bigger’ vision would be to build proper mass transit infrastructure like light rail to link major employment, education and residential centres. This would allow transport-oriented development around the light rail network, and delay or negate entirely the need to build or upgrade roads.

The Carnell government could have built light rail from Gungahlin to Civic in 1999 – a much better idea than a fanciful Civic, Airport, Parliamentary Triangle loop using a proprietary transport technology. Many years of stress free commuting and guided transport oriented development would have then followed. The GDE may not even have been required.

Sadly the Stanhope Government will repeat this farce in Molonglo. In a submission by ACT Light Rail on the Molonglo Development it was noted that the ACT Governments own advice to itself is that at each stage of its development, the access to Molonglo via Parkes way will be at capacity. 18 months after the submission, and with a proposal also put forward by the Greens, no real commitment to improve access or public transport in Molonglo has been announced, apart from some vague promise to run a bus route in and out. The outcome of congested roads and endless upgrades is predictable.
 Bishop Austrans passenger vehicle, 9 to 18 passenger capacity (promotional photo).

Now lets look at Bishop Austrans. As a public transport solution it has advantages and disadvantages. The Bishop Austrans system is a driverless small vehicle system, which is summoned on demand and can run 24x7. It has a capacity of nine to eighteen people. Driverless vehicles would certainly solve the problem of frequency, as staff numbers in and out of peak times would not vary. Theoretically the system could operate 24 hours a day. Sadly, the Bishop Austrans system is yet to be installed in service anywhere. Driverless vehicle technology can work well, and I have used it in places like JFK Airport in New York (and even this system is light rail capacity in size) but I do not know of any large scale rollouts of this technology.

The article also mentioned that a Civic, Airport, Parliamentary Triangle circuit was suggested. Such a small circuit would justify a small carriage such as the Bishop Austrans. The toylike Sydney Monorail that serves the tourist trade is an example. Larger capacity required to serve as a rapid transit system from say Gungahlin to Civic and then onto the Parliamentary Triangle, would require larger vehicles than Bishop Austrans. How anyone viewed a system that consisted of vehicles carrying 18 people as suitable for Canberra is beyond me.

To place this in perspective – ACTION buses transport 30,000 passengers a day (2002 figures), in buses with 60-120 passenger capacity. You simply could not replace a barely functioning and unpopular bus network with a proprietary small vehicle replacement. Somehow the practical issue of dealing with volume and frequency and a summon on demand system remained theoretical. Apart from a small test track, Bishop Austrans remains on paper – 10 years later.

It should also be remembered that around this 1999 period, bus industry boosters in Canberra and ACTION management were heavily promoting guided bus technology. The heavily pushed system of preference was the European Civis guided bus system. This troubled proprietary technology is promoted as bus rapid transit. Yet it features all the disadvantages of buses and none of the advantages of light rail. Fortunately for Canberras rate-payers and public transport users, this has now fallen out of favour. 
 Promotional photo of a 'hands free' guided bus. 

Canberra does not need to trial new technologies to solve its transport problems. It can easily invest in a proven, off the shelf technology and have it up and running in less than twelve months. The Stanhope Government commissioned a consultant to examine light rail and it reported that introducing light rail would not only enhance the public transport system, promote increased use of public transport – but it would also boost productivity. After reading this report, the Stanhope government concluded that the report said light rail was too expensive. The report said no such thing, yet it’s a claim oft repeated by the Chief Minister and never challenged by the media.

Following this discovery that public transport infrastructure would require more than a sign on a pole saying ‘bus stop’ the Stanhope Government then made a submission to Infrastructure Australia requesting 2 billion dollars. No engineering plan was submitted, and no real costings were provided. The submission guidelines were not met, and the bid was doomed before it was submitted. Professor Paul Mees recently advised that the costings were out by a factor of at least three. It is no surprise that two years later no word has come down from Infrastructure Australia advising that the ACT will get its money, or that it hasn’t. The whole subject has just been ignored. By saying that a light rail network will cost 2 billion dollars, and Canberra cant afford it on its own – the Stanhope Government neatly handballs the issue to someone else.

Realistically, no transport network is funded to be fully constructed in one funding cycle. A sound approach would be to identify one or two logical starting points that could be funded over a 2 to 5 year period. These routes have already been identified by the consultant engaged to prepare the Canberra Transport Plan (due first quarter of 2010, six months ago). This could cost as little as 200 million dollars, or 40 million a year for five years. This is achievable and would make better reading in the 2020 Canberra Times report on schemes funded by the Stanhope Government.

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