Infrastructure Australia (IA) recently released a paper in its reform series entitled “Corridor Protection” in which the case is argued for effective corridor protection for future infrastructure projects.
In particular, the argument is advanced that the cost of acquiring the land needed to build tomorrow’s infrastructure is much less, in discounted cash flow terms, than would need to be expended in the future when, potentially, the land needed for such corridor may have been crowded out by urbanisation and other higher forms of land use.
On the face of it, it would appear to be a “no-brainer” to make such strategic investments but something as seemingly sensible as doing so may have its pitfalls and downsides, which need to be very carefully assessed along with the more obvious benefits.
IA correctly argues that historic efforts to reserve corridors for Sydney’s future motorway systems ultimately allowed their development some 50 years after they were designated and reserved. But this was not so in all cases.
Corridors so designated through Sydney’s northern suburbs to both the direct north and to the northern beaches had to be abandoned as increased urbanisation led to them being compromised as community attitudes to environmental issues intensified and, in many cases, such as the F6 corridor west of Botany Bay, as communities came to see such reservations as the only remaining open space for recreational purposes and have been energised to defend them as such. Governments also came under pressure from Sydney’s “rapacious” development industry and for state revenue generation purposes to relinquish such long held but not as yet utilised reservations for urban development purposes - local community opposition to the use of such land for surface transport also increased. Whilst many of the reservations did enable the provision of urban motorways, the operational performance of some of these was compromised, in places, by having to limit road speeds to less than optimum to minimise exposure to road noise to residents who had built or bought houses close up the road reservation boundary – as occurred on the M2 where speeds were limited initially in places to 90km/h. In other places, surface alignments became politically unachievable with passage of time and, as IA rightly points out, had to be (and may yet have to be) accommodated in tunnels which are not only expensive to build in the first instance but ruinously expensive to expand at a later date, if just for the misery costs imposed on road users of long periods of delay due to construction zones speed limits and reduced lane capacity – as was the case for example with the M2 Epping tunnel, as is the case with the new WestConnex tunnel and would be the case if the M5 tunnel has to be expanded.
Having too much foresight can be problem as well.
In Sydney, in the development of the City railway in the first part of the 20th century, the redoubtable Dr JJC Bradfield made numerous “investments” in infrastructure to permit the future expansion of the system. A few examples are the Northern Beaches railway stub tunnels at North Sydney and those extending north out of St James Station. And then, of course, there are the “ghost” platforms 26/27 at Central which date from the 1950s. A more contemporary example was the “acquisition”, by use of planning instruments, of a corridor reservation for a future rail tunnel through the western corridor of the Sydney CBD. This required a strata title through various building basements. Given that Metro Sydney has now adopted an entirely different alignment through the CBD, this seemingly sensible – at the time - planning precaution now looks unlikely to be utilised – though of course one can never say never. The author has been involved in many studies for augmenting Sydney’s rail system and has made “valiant” efforts to make use of such provisions but, to date, no workable schemes have been able to be devised which meets contemporary needs - for example, use of the spare platforms at St James for a airport rail link CBD terminal. This is because, in the intervening period, the city has reshaped and transport infrastructure solutions of 50 – 100 years ago and even only 20 years ago are no longer deemed appropriate for operational, economic, social, environmental, political or any other reason.
And as far back as the 1980s, the ACT government very responsibly designated corridors for facilitating high speed rail into and through the Territory and the City of Canberra and has defended these against incompatible forms of development. Commendable as this was, the last study in 2012 into high speed rail did not propose the connections to Canberra anywhere near these reservations. Worse, the ACT’s corridor was and still is predicated on an extension of high speed rail south towards the Monaro and Gippsland which neither of the Commonwealth’s studies since 2001 have supported and which does little to bringing high speed rail close into a CBD terminus or even a CBD through station to permit the more logical westwards extension – should that ever happen - to the inland cities of Wagga Wagga and Albury and onwards to Melbourne in the very long term.
In terms of high speed rail, IA calls for corridor protection for the entire east coast corridor from Brisbane to Melbourne. While this is commendable in regard to the short range regional corridors into and around the major cities – where inevitably the great problems occur - for which the Commonwealth now has a plan and policy2 to investigate, there is no plan or policy, as yet, for the creation of the entire east coast system. The work required to conduct the engineering and environmental planning studies needed to enable the precise geometric designation in legally binding cadastral terms to facilitate land acquisition over a ~2000 km corridor would not only be vast but may prove premature – put simply, by defining a corridor in the wrong place given the likely time lapse between such designation and its use. Being ultimately located in the wrong place is not helpful given the impact in the interim that such a reservation potentially has on lives and on lands it transects or even merely adjoins. As such, a much better than even chance of it being used at some reasonably foreseeable point in time for its intended purpose is needed.
Of course, it is not possible to discuss making such reservation for infrastructure without mentioning that made for another airport in the Sydney Basin. Those of us around at the time gravely opined that “until the question of a site for another airport is settled the entire future structure of the greater metro area of Sydney cannot be determined” such is the footprint of an airport on a city. And we weren’t wrong! Again, responsible and foresighted planning in the 1980s led to acquisition by the Commonwealth of a site at Badgerys Creek, laying, so we thought, the ground work which would allow metropolitan planning to proceed rationally.
But the politics of such a project led to this site being disavowed by both by sides of politics for decades and strangely absent from strategic transport planning documents prepared by the State – which doesn’t have responsibility for air transport, only land transport. And although it was shown in statutory land use planning documents as being zoned SP1 Commonwealth Land “Special uses”, the long delay since its acquisition till today when, finally there is political alignment and commitment, may have lulled some in the community into thinking, however foolishly, that it would never happen and that their lives would never be affected. Fortunately in this case, notwithstanding that there remains some opposition to use of the site, it has been sufficiently protected from incompatible development to still be operationally viable 30 years on. I say, “fortunately” advisedly because, as was shown clearly in the Joint State- Commonwealth “Sydney Region Aviation Capacity Study” of 2012 , whilst Badgerys Creek may not be, by today’s major airport standards, the very best possible site for another airport, it is by far the best site that Sydney still has left.
In summary, provided it is affordable and for some form of infrastructure that has a better than even chance of being implemented within a realistic time horizon which - given what it takes to actually plan, design and gain approval - would be of the order of, say, 10 to 15 years – i.e. well with the lifetimes of planners and politicians - if only to ensure their continued commitment to it! - it makes sense to invest in the foundation of the project which is its land corridor or reservation. But the corridor itself is not enough – sufficient curtilage must be acquired and/or protected, physically or through land use planning regulations, to ensure the future operation of that infrastructure can occur and without compromising its performance e.g. speed limits below maximum, curfews and the like. And it must be defended at every turn by politicians against those who would comprise it or water down its projection.
IA rightly points to the need for “government at all levels… to work together on corridor protection” and indeed, in Australia’s geopolitical situation, and with simultaneously both the division of and increasingly overlap of responsibilities for delivering projects of the scale that Australia is now both contemplating and needing, that need extends beyond corridor protection to the entire gamut of infrastructure provision.
Finally, IA’s call for increased attention and activity by Governments to make provision for future infrastructure by acquisition of corridors is sensible, provided it is a response to a policy and plan which has been thoroughly tested by the parliaments and for which there is not only bipartisan support at the Commonwealth level but also at other levels of government. This may be a “high bar” to surmount and therefore in need of a different approach by parties and governments but if infrastructure is to be effectively delivered, it cannot continue to be a political “football”. Debate the policy by all means but let’s have majority commitment to the outcomes and what is need to deliver the policy! There is little doubt that countries who do not have to observe the niceties and protocols that we do can get things done faster but that is not our way.
Notwithstanding the very many merits of Australia’s democratic form of government, infrastructure “planning by marginal electorates” is not one of them. We need to get beyond that, and fast, if a truly national infrastructure agenda is to be delivered on time and on budget.
Peter Thornton is a member of the Board of Advice at the Institute of Transport and Logistics, University of Sydney and Managing Director of Transportation Associates Pty Ltd, a consultancy in strategic advice for the transport sector.