Anti-WCX protest, White Bay footbridge, Rozelle, 18 February 2017. Credit: Denise Corrigan

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BY WENDY BACON

It is often said by critics of tollways that the purpose of building a tollway is to build a case for building another tollway. When the first tollway fails to reduce traffic congestion, your next project comes into play. In other words, tollways are the gift to the road lobby that just keeps giving.

The EIS for the Stage 3 M4/M5 tunnels and massive interchanges in St Peters and Haberfield and Rozelle presents an excellent example of this argument.

NSW Planning released Sydney Motorway Corporation’s EIS for the WestConnex M4/M5 in the same week that the Berejiklian government announced it would sell 51% of the SMC, which is tasked with financing, building and imposing tolls on WestConnex. The buyer is likely to be a consortium including Transurban, which controls nearly all private tollways in Sydney and Brisbane and promotes to its investors a much larger network (including WestConnex) as its future goal.

It was also the same week that a re-imposed toll on the widened M4 from Parramatta to Homebush began. So far this has led to 25% of anticipated M4 traffic shifting to Parramatta Road or other routes. This was always predicted to happen as a response to the re-imposition.

On a trip to Taiwan to attract international private sector interest for NSW’s transport projects, Premier Gladys Berejiklian reassured Sydney residents that she understood the cost of living pressures. However, she explained that tolls were all for the good cause of paying for more Sydney tollways. The idea is to toll M4 drivers for more than 40 years to pay for the rest of WestConnex and the Western Harbour Tunnel to the North Shore. Needless to say, users of the M4 don’t think this is fair.

In this political context, the NSW government is in a desperate rush to get planning approval for the M4/M5, which is the most expensive and complicated stage of WestConnex. It involves building three layers of underground tunnels under parts of Rozelle. As yet there is no engineering plan for this. Approval depends on senior staff in NSW Planning compliantly agreeing to tick off on the EIS, as was done with the New M5 and the M4.

The latest EIS was released just ten business days after feedback period ended for the Concept Design for the M4/M5 and before preliminary drilling to establish a route through the Inner West is completed. This EIS is little more than a concept design and is far less developed than earlier ones. It ignores more than 1500 submissions, including one of 142 pages from the Inner West Council.

The EIS for the M4 East and the New M5 argued the case that serious congestion created near interchanges would be solved once the M4/M5 was built. But the EIS for the M4/M5 casts doubts on that proposition. Now the real benefits depend on the Western Harbour Tunnel, the Airport Link and a tollway heading South. None of these projects have been planned, let alone approved.

Even if and when projects were completed, there would still be serious congestion in St Peters, Rozelle and Haberfield. Deep in the EIS, you learn that RMS is already hard at work considering how to solve these problems.

While lip service is paid to public transport, there is no consideration of alternative ways to spend billions of dollars. The alternative plan put forward by the City of Sydney is ignored.

Greens Newtown MP Jenny Leong MP condemned the release of the EIS as an attempt to “bulldoze planning approvals through” to clear the way for the 51% sale.

“We know that the planning and governance of this project have been a farce and releasing the EIS before any response to the extensive community feedback on the M4-M5 Link concept design, shows more of the same contempt from this government. The Greens and the community know that WestConnex isn’t the answer and we will be doing everything we can to disrupt their plans over the coming months,” she said.

The EIS was prepared by global engineering firm AECOM, which also prepared the EIS for Stages 1 and 2. When he approved these earlier stages, the then Minister for Planning Rob Stokes pointed to conditions of approval that would minimise impacts on communities. But the impacts have turned out to worse than expected.

For example, the AECOM EIS for the New M5 failed to deal with how the massively contaminated land fill at Alexandria would be managed during construction. After months of sickening odours, the NSW EPA admits that despite fining SMC and requiring contractors to take measures to control odours, they have not stopped. It acknowledges that it does not have the power to stop work until WestConnex contractors comply with environmental regulations.

In the case of Haberfield and St Peters, approval of this EIS will mean that construction impacts of M4 and New M5 will extend for a further five years with both construction and 24/7 tunnelling sites.

The EIS uses the term “construction fatigue’ to refer to the continuing impacts of construction. There is almost no explanation of what this means. Haberfield resident Sharon Laura has been campaigning against WestConnex for more than three years, and now spends a lot of her time dealing with problems caused by the construction in Haberfield. Ms Laura said it is “offensive and inhumane” to describe the impact as ‘construction fatigue.’

“Right now in Haberfield there are people who are suicidal, who’ve been hospitalised, who are taking sleeping pills to deal with noise, health problems are being exacerbated, relationships are being destroyed,” she said.

Despite a strong local campaign, the community living around Darley Road, Leichhardt is reeling from the implications of SMC’s announcement that it intends to occupy a site where a Dan Murphy liquor store opened on land owned by Rail Corp earlier this year. A Sydney Morning Herald investigation raised questions about why initial advice recommending that the lease not be extended on the site was changed in 2012 after lobbyist and former Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski got the owner “in front of the person” who could resolve the issue. After fresh probity advice, the lease was extended until 2018. This controversial decision means that the NSW government will have to pay the leaseholder and Dan Murphy’s up to $50 million compensation, adding to cost of WestConnex. Question marks hanging over the site reinforce the impression that private hidden deals were done while communities were kept in the dark about the likely location of construction sites.

Serious safety concerns about the choice of the Darley Rd site have been raised by the Inner West Council and an independent engineer’s report. Leichhardt Against WestConnex (LAW) spokesperson Christina Valentine told City Hub: “LAW is extremely disappointed that despite countless meetings with SMC and RMS over 12 months, none of these legitimate concerns have been addressed. This is a massive breach of community trust.”

RMS previously identified the Darley Rd site as the third most dangerous traffic hazard in the Inner West. Previously the NSW Land and Environment Court found that the location of the site couldn’t safely deal with 60 bottle truck movements a week, but the M4/M5 EIS shows that more than 800 vehicles including hundreds of heavy ones will use the site each day.

Residents in 371 homes in the Darley Road area would have potential sleep disturbance from night works, with 36 homes ‘highly affected’. Some homes will have a truck on average every 4 minutes just metres from their bedrooms. If experience in Haberfield, Kingsgrove, St Peters and Alexandria is anything to go by, residents can again expect the actual experience to be worse than predicted by the EIS.

The EIS identifies hundreds of risks. It either recommends proceeding despite the risks or seeking a way to mitigate risks during the “detailed design” phase. That phase excludes the public altogether.

NSW Planning is currently reviewing its major projects approval process. A good start would be to halt this profoundly inadequate form of planning and have an open, transparent and independent review of WestConnex. Other cities have managed to reduce traffic congestion – why not Sydney?