By Allison Hore
A report detailing findings from the Public Accountability Committee’s inquiry into the Light Rail project’s impact was released last week, revealing the “profoundly experienced” effects of the project.
The parliamentary inquiry was set up in May last year to investigate the impact of the CBD and South East Light Rail project on residents and businesses in these areas. The committee was chaired by Reverend Fred Nile of the Christian Democrat party and included members from the Liberal, Labor, Nationals and Greens parties.
“The CBD and South East Light Rail (CSELR) project is a major infrastructure project in Sydney that will connect Circular Quay to Kingsford and Randwick. It aims to improve public transport capacity, and to ease traffic congestion which is costing the economy a substantial amount of money each year,” Mr Nile wrote in the Foreword to the report.
Transport for NSW claims that traffic congestion across the Sydney CBD currently costs the NSW economy more than $5.1 billion per year. Without network changes they project this to reach $8.8 billion by 2021.
Serious questions about timeframes
The new twelve-kilometre light rail route extends from Circular Quay to Randwick and Transport for NSW believe it will ease traffic into the city centre and take the pressure off existing bus routes. While the committee agreed the infrastructure was ultimately needed, one of the primary concerns they looked into was the timeframe of completion.
“Unfortunately, serious questions have been raised in relation to the project’s timeframes and costs,” said Mr Nile.
Leaked documents obtained by the ABC and Fairfax in September last year revealed that the NSW Government was warned by Australia’s peak infrastructure body that the light rail project would be poor value for money.
Infrastructure Australia told Transport for NSW before construction started in 2015 that they thought the light rail route from Circular Quay to Randwick was poor value and would be overcrowded and actually increase congestion on city roads.
The completion of the project has already been delayed by a year, and though Transport for NSW would like to have it completed by December this year, it is not expected to be finished until May 2020. These delays have “heightened” a lot of the issues that local residents have experienced as a result of the construction.
“Many have experienced excessive noise, dust, vibration and damage to their homes,” said Mr Nile.
Randwick City Mayor Lindsay Shurey told the committee that many of her constituents have complained that they find the noise “appalling”.
“The breaches of the noise – the work – is constant. They are told that the noise will stop at 12 o’clock at night, but at 4 o’clock in the morning they are still tapping sounds which are unbelievable,” she said.
“And this has been going on for such a long time. I couldn’t live there and I know that any of you would have difficulty. I am sure they are going mental.”
Businesses have also been “significantly impacted” by the construction, the report concludes. They haven’t just faced financial losses; small business owners have also faced damage to their physical and mental wellbeing.
“This was particularly distressing for committee members to see, and we thank those who came forward to share with us so honestly the effect this project has had on their personal lives,” he said.
In August last year, 60 businesses along the route joined a class action lawsuit against Transport for NSW, claiming they’d been adversely impacted by the construction of the light rail. Since then the number has almost doubled, with 110 business claiming a total of $400 million in compensation.
“If you’re going to unnecessarily damage people’s lives and businesses then you’ve got to be brought to account – you can’t just do these things with impunity,” lawyer Rick Mitry told AAP.
As a result of the Parliamentary report’s findings, the committee made a number recommendations including that the government prioritise reviewing all claims for damages and updating residents on the progress of their claims.
Urgent review of all claims
The government should “conduct an urgent review of all claims, which shall include recommendations for compensation for residents whose properties have been found to be adversely impacted by the CBD and South East Light Rail project,” the report says.
The report also said that the NSW Government should revise the guidelines for the Small Business Assistance program to make it easier for small businesses impacted by the construction to seek help, and that these changes should be implemented in any future developments of this scale.
“Transport for NSW and the Small Business Commissioner [should] encourage and support businesses to apply for financial assistance under the Small Business Assistance Program, even in circumstances where businesses may not meet eligibility criteria,” suggests the report.
Mr Nile concludes in this Foreword that he hopes the recommendations from the report will be taken into account in future infrastructure projects, and says he hopes the Light Rail will have a positive impact on the community.
“While it has been a tough time for many affected by this project, I personally hope that once completed, this light rail service will deliver its anticipated benefits.”