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By WENDY BACON

Today Premier Berejiklain announced that $2.6 billion public dollars would be spent on the Sydney Gateway that would allow drivers to travel from Parramatta to Sydney’s airport without going through a single traffic light.

$800 million of this $2.6 billion budget is supposed to be sitting in the WestConnex budget. The remaining $1.8 billion punches a very big hole in the $4 billion that Treasurer Dominic Perrotet boasted that the WestConnex Transurban privatisation deal would leave for hospitals and schools.

At this stage, the government is promising the two kilometre road will not be tolled. But because the Gateway flows into WestConnex, it will be another windfall for Transurban, which now controls 13 or Sydney’s 15 planned toll roads.

The Premier’s words will sound familiar to those who remember that six years ago the ‘52 traffic lights’ claim was the very one made for WestConnex when it was announced by the Coalition government in October 2012.  She’ll be hoping that if she repeats the claims often enough, she will bury the past. Her attempt to do this began when she  told Channel 7 news on August 10 last year that the Sydney Gateway “feeds into the project WestConnex but it is not part of it, it never was.”

The statement was clear but also a lie. In fact, there are countless documents that describe the Sydney Gateway as a WestConnex project. The day before the Premier made the statement, the Minister for WestConnex Stuart Ayres finally admitted under questioning from Labor’s Shadow Minister Jodi McKay, “The question related to Sydney Gateway, which is not part of the WestConnex portfolio.” In a brazen rewriting of history,  he declared that the final stage of WestConnex had always been the M4/M5 link between Rozelle and St Peters.

The circumstances in which the Sydney Gateway to Sydney airport disappeared out of WestConnex is one of the terms of reference for the Inquiry into the Impacts of WestConnex that is being held by the NSW Legislative Council Public Accountability committee.

WestConnex is enmeshed in a myriad of conflicts of interest and secrets but even in that context, Sydney Gateway stands out as the canary in the coal mine. With the power to call witnesses and for documents, the inquiry will hopefully uncover more of its hidden history.

The story goes back to October 2012, when Infrastructure NSW (INSW)’s Annual report described the $10 billion ‘WestConnex’ motorway as the highest priority project to be completed in the first 10 years. The 33 km scheme includes an extension of the M4 to Sydney Airport.”

The Sydney Motorway Office was set up and a number of companies were invited to help plan WestConnex. One of these was infrastructure giant Lend Lease, which was granted $2,489,507 to undertake an Airport Access Link Reference Design between January and April 2013. Hopefully, the Inquiry will call for this document.

Senior executive Christopher Swann represented INSW in the Sydney Motorways office and was involved in developing the first business case for WestConnex.  According to his Linked In profile, in January 2014, he shifted to the Westconnex Delivery Authority (WDA) to head the New M5 project, which at that stage included the Airport Link. Swann signed the New M5 application to NSW Planning which on page 1 described the Sydney Gateway as a component of Stage 2 WestConnex but on page 23, is described as part of Stage 3.

The WestConnex Strategic Business case, which was released in November 2015, contained many references to the Sydney Gateway. It was part of Stage 2  but would be delivered in a ‘similar time frame for Stage 3’. The reported stated that ‘ timeframes may change. At the latest, it will open by 2023.’ This was an early sign that there could be obstacles in the way of the project.

The WestConnex Delivery Authority morphed into the private Sydney Motorway Corporation. When its CEO Denis Cliche was interviewed in December 2016 by the SMH, he talked about ‘negotiating around properties’ and a need to move the rail link from Port Botany.  Big problems with the Gateway project were coming into starker relief but Cliche still talked about ‘we’ – meaning the Sydney Motorway Corporation.

In January 2016, the WestConnex Stage 3 proposal was lodged with NSW Planning. Page one of that document described the Sydney Gateway as part of WestConnex.

But something had shifted. SMC contracts were secret but a search of NSW tender database reveals that a $1 million RMS contract was awarded to project management firm MBB Pty Ltd from February 2016 until October 2018 to manage roads for the Sydney Gateway.

It seems that the Sydney Gateway project had moved from SMC to RMS but the confusion continued.  In April 2016, Infrastructure Australia published its business case evaluation of WestConnex. Its report still relied on the assumption that the Sydney Gateway was part of Stage 2. (Who provided them with that information? Did anyone in the NSW government seek to correct it?)

After the Stage 2 contract had been awarded, Christopher Swann moved to RMS where he worked on the business cases for more Sydney toll roads and managed the RMS ‘client’ role with SMC for the Stage 3 M4.M5 link,  In January 2017, Christopher Swann left RMS and joined Capella Capital, a partner firm of Lend Lease. Lend Lease confirmed today that he recently left the company. Swann could provide lots of useful answers to the Inquiry as it seeks to discover the timing and circumstances in which the Gateway was separated from WestConnex.

It took another 7 months for the government to finally admit on August 9, 2017 that the Gateway had dropped out of WestConnex. The SMH reported that during this time, Ayres ministerial diary recorded that he met with Capella Capital in May. ( City Hub will publish the date of that meeting when we obtain it.)

On August 10 last year, the SMH reported that according to a document leaked to NSW Labor, the cost of the Sydney Gateway had blown out from $800 million to $1.8 billion. At the time Premier Berejiklian disputed the fact that the Gateway cost had increased “when the final business case hasn’t happened yet”. This answer was designed to mislead. The cost was revealed today to be around $2.6 billion and it’s not even clear of how much of the huge amount of RMS work around the airport that figure includes. There is still no business case.

When the Stage 3 M4/M5 EIS was filed with NSW Planning in August, the Sydney Gateway was now no longer described as part of WestConnex but as part of ‘other projects’ along with the Western Harbour Tunnel and the F6. Did anyone in NSW Planning ask for an explanation of what changed between the Stage 3 application and its EIS?

On September 4, 2017, the ABC reported that Lend Lease had submitted an unsolicited bid to build the Sydney Gateway, which would be likely to carry an extra toll. The Minister for Roads Melinda Pavey refused to comment. Two days later when asked when she first knew that the Gateway was not part of Sydney Gateway, she said that “when we started to do the homework it was very clear that the definition of WestConnex, and to the Sydney Motorway Corporation, was the 33 kilometres of tunnels that finished at St Peters interchange. “  The public might like to know who provided her with the information for her ‘homework’, which was not consistent with available facts.

In Budget Estimates last year, the  Department of Transport Tim Reardon tried to make this extraordinary process seem normal. “As we said, it is six years away from now. We will go through the normal steps we would go through for any major project…” He didn’t mention that the project was already supposed to have undergone 6 years work costing millions of dollars for no result.

On November 13, 2017, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Government had rejected the  Lend Lease bid because the project would have required a large equity contribution or high tolls. What were the real reasons behind this decision? Was it that a fresh tollway would have been too much to sell to an electorate that was already angry about tolls.

But there was also good news for Lend Lease when on June 13, 2018, Lend Lease was awarded the huge contract for the M4/M5 project between Haberfield and St Peters, which was amongst the projects that Christopher Swann worked on until he left the RMS. It is also the major player in one of two consortiums selected to construct the never before attempted three-level underground exchange at Rozelle for which the public will shoulder very high risks.

Who, when and why was the Sydney Gateway cut off from WestConnex? What are the reasons why NSW government ministers have resisted telling the public the truth about the Sydney Gateway? What private meetings and discussions were held with Lend Lease? Why is it that the link to Sydney Airport that was supposed to be a rationale for WestConnex has taken six years to get to today’s concept announcement?  Did the advice of private companies invited to plan WestConnex contribute to future problems?  Was Transurban promised that the NSW government would throw in the Sydney Gateway when the WestConnex sale deal was sealed two weeks ago? What is the real nature of the deal that the privatised Sydney Airport has been able to gouge from the government?

Behind all these questions is a much bigger issue about whether private interests have been allowed to take over transport to the detriment of the public interest.

It’s now over to the Parliamentary Committee for Public Accountability to hold the government accountable.

Photo: Looking towards Sydney Airport from WestConnex interchange construction site.

Wendy Bacon was previously the Professor of Journalism at UTS and supports the campaign against WestConnex.