Thứ Bảy, 31 tháng 5, 2014

Light rail a grand vision, but can it stack up?

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It uses “passenger intensity” as a measure of viability – with a minimum intensity (passenger kilometres per kilometre of line) of 4000 considered the threshold. As it stands, intensity figures go nowhere near that threshold only finally getting there once you take into account the impact of massive development in the corridor. Without all that development, only the city to Exhibition Park sector of the rail line appears to yap at the heels of the magic threshold number by 2031. As soon as you add in the extra 9km to Gungahlin, or the extension of the lake to the Parliamentary Triangle, the intensity figure drops off (since you’re increasing the distance of the line proportionately more than you’re increasing passenger numbers).

But the passenger numbers and intensity figures in the draft rapid-business case are difficult to understand: the commentary doesn’t always appear to match the tables of numbers; and the tables of numbers don’t always appear to add up. Which means one of three things: someone has fiddled the figures to produce a bogus document in some double-blind, motivationally obscure machiavellian plot; this reporter needs a lesson in using a calculator; or this is a working draft in which the numbers are still being massaged and checked. Even attempting a Nate Silver-style Bayesian assessment of the probability of these options, and keeping in mind a gentle government reminder that these things are put together by top accounting firms like Ernst Young, which don’t make adding-up mistakes, I still can’t decide which option is more likely. But the slipperiness in the numbers is not comforting whichever way you look at it.

The leaking of this document, and of other damaging information – like the consideration of a levy to fund the project – will be worrying for the government. As will the fact that opposition and agitation is coming from people who are not, on the whole, political opponents. They’re people close to the project who don’t like the way the figures are adding up and the way the government’s budget is heading. They’re people from within Labor and the Greens, who don’t like the massive ongoing expense that light rail entails, and who don’t like one of the leading models to pay for it – a public-private partnership, which removes the project from the public books and from public scrutiny, while committing ratepayers to paying for the tram line with annual contributions from the budget for many years to come. The Labor government and Shane Rattenbury, the Green whose vote keeps the government in power, are upsetting their own constituency on this one.

For Sustainable Development Minister Simon Corbell, there will be no backing down, declaring his determination to stay the course on light rail last week.

Treasurer Andrew Barr is also aglow with the scale of the challenge and the enormity of investment he is charged with drumming up. He’s off to Singapore and Hong Kong in June to get lenders and investors on board for this and other projects, and shares with Corbell a grandness and fearlessness in his vision.

This pair lead the visionary, ambitious charge in the ACT government (in another extraordinarily big-thinking project, Corbell is also setting about a program of wind and solar and bio-energy projects to convert the city almost entirely to green energy), while Chief Minister Katy Gallagher is left sounding less than convincing when she assures us “we’re going to be sensible with this project, we’re not going to be silly”. She did demonstrate her willingness to back down on a plan when she called an 11th hour halt to Corbell’s fast-track planning laws in May, but as Corbell declares that “work and effort and determination and a willingness to stay the course” are necessary to realise projects on this scale, you can’t help but think the horse might have bolted on light rail, so that even the Chief Minister will struggle to rein it in.

Assuming the draft rapid-business case figures are genuine, albeit in draft, one thing is clear: you don’t get the passenger numbers you need without a transformation of Northbourne Avenue with huge commercial development and a lot more people living there – including turning Exhibition Park into a major hub of apartments and big business. Even then, the magic passenger numbers are in 2031, which is 15 years after the first sod is turned, and 12 years after the tram line takes its first passenger.

The transformation envisaged by the Capital Metro agency is nothing short of extraordinary.

It wants the government to prioritise the corridor, and make decisions “that deliberately favour it over other precincts across the ACT”. It wants a special development unit set up to oversee development in the corridor over 30-plus years.

It wants nine development hubs, two of them – Dickson and Exhibition Park – accelerated for a quick decision. Here they are:

  • The city and city north (two zones): More infilling, and a major retail centre, underground car parking and residential apartments in a location between London Circuit and Parkes Way – linking the rail line with the City to the Lake development. It envisages scope for 1250 apartments over 50,000 square metres in this zone.

  • Macarthur: A zone that covers the Northbourne Flats public housing with “clear attractions” for a Capital Metro station. Northbourne Flats cover 36,000 square metres, and could yield 900 apartments, the rapid business case says, but notes that ripping them down would mean building public housing elsewhere, substantially reducing the net profit in the process.

  • Dickson: A podium building, with underground car parking including “park and ride”, a tram station, retail and office space on the lower levels and apartments higher up. Retail could include cinemas. A thousand apartments are envisaged here.

  • “Sporting zone”: Home to Southwell Park, the sporting buildings behind, and the Yowani pond area, bordered by Ellenborough Street, Lyneham, and the Barton Highway. The rapid business case envisages a park and ride facility here to bring Belconnen residents in on the tram. ”It should be noted that racecourses all around Australia are currently undergoing significant changes to their land uses in order to pay for significant capital works programs,” it said. “It is no longer acceptable to allow large parcels of land to sit idle for the majority of the time.”

  • Exhibition Park and the racecourse: The site of a “suburban business park”, which could include “hotel or service accommodation, private hospitals, place of worship (e.g. Hillsong), and indoor recreation facilities”, the report says, pointing to the Norwest business park in Sydney as an example. It envisages 2500 apartments here.

  • Mitchell: Could be rezoned to include “medium-grade hotel or serviced apartments (such as Ibis or Mercure brands)”, which would be attractive for families, long-stay workers, school groups, people visiting the cemetery and crematorium, and people accessing the possible “private hospital or recreational facilities” envisaged for Exhibition Park.

  • Gungahlin fringe: With new homes already being built here, the full business case is looking at the market’s appetite to deliver still more apartments and townhouses. Plus this could be the site for “pockets of public housing within master-planned projects”.

  • Gungahlin town centre: The full business case will look at the appetite for more apartments and townhouses here as well, with the aim of creating “counter-flow movements” – tram trips not just into the city for work, but towards Gungahlin.

The rapid business case also offers insights into the process of making a project stack up. It says the previous business case on this project, in January last year, will be “enhanced” with the release of the full business case in the coming months. The updated business case will add car parking levies to the mix (which persuade more people on to public transport) to “enhance the robustness of the analysis”. It will consider staging and extending the route to improve the numbers (although the government quickly scotched the idea of staging the line to Gungahlin, saying the city to Gungahlin line will be built in one hit).

It will update population and jobs forecasts in the corridor in light of an aggressive (termed “active” by Capital Metro) development program. “Land activation” was likely to result in a higher benefit-cost ratio than in the previous business case, the draft said.

The full business case will also improve “benefit calculations”, “which currently disfavour public transport (and particularly light rail) by failing to capture comfort and convenience benefits”. Public transport invariably takes longer than travelling by car, the report commented, and the previous business case treated the increased journey time as a negative. But if people are attracted out of their cars by better public transport “they must be better off”.

The full business case will update the cost of the project from the early figure of $614 million. And it will take into account new parking charges, the potential for park and ride sites, and the impact of the new Majura highway on the light-rail line.

Plus it will take into account “wider economic benefits”, which the draft document suggests could increase the benefit side of the equation by 10 per cent to 20 per cent.

So you can expect a business case that paints a far rosier picture than we have seen to date about the viability and benefits of a light-rail line. Which will no doubt fuel the cynicism of the doubters, but will at least give the government something to hold up as backing its claims about the transformational power and enormous benefits of the Gungahlin tram line. Assuming it is released.

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Light rail a grand vision, but can it stack up?

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