Hi from the Balgowlah Residents Group,
A lot has happened in the last week that will have an impact on the future, or otherwise, of the Beaches Link Tunnel project. The resignation of Gladys Berejiklian precipitated Transport Minister Andrew Constance to resign (to seek greener pastures in the Federal parliament) and his replacement by Rob Stokes, the current Minister for Planning, Industry and the Environment (DPIE). The new premier, Dominic Perrottet, was not known to be a supporter of the Beaches Link Tunnel because as Treasurer, he was most probably aware that the project had poor economics and it’s sale to a private operator would generate less than 50% of the government’s cost to build the project.
A Channel 7 news report on Tuesday evening claimed that Perrottet was opposed to proceeding with the Beaches Link Tunnel project – and this was widely interpreted that the government would cancel the project. No decision has yet been made, as official processes still need to be undertaken.
This means we still need to make sure we let the new Government know how problematic the Beaches Link project is, not only for our region and the state’s finances, but potentially for the government’s electoral appeal. We should congratulate them for a willingness to make a decision based on the evidence.
A full list of people you may wish to contact is at the end of this update.
What official processes are currently underway?
The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) is committed under the EP&A Act to complete its review of the EIS for the Beaches Link Tunnel and the submissions to the EIS from members of the public and a number of government agencies. The DPIE will make a decision on whether the design proposed in the EIS is acceptable, or what changes need to be made to make it acceptable. Once the DPIE makes it’s “determination”, TfNSW will need to assess the impacts of the changes and any conditions imposed by the DPIE on the design and capital costs of the project before it can engage with potential contractors to develop a preliminary estimate of the likely capital costs. What the Premier and Minister Stokes have said is that the government is committed to allowing the DPIE to complete the process it has started and that this will flow into the business case assessment to be undertaken by Infrastructure NSW. Reports by various MPs in the media have correctly stated that this normal process is ongoing, and the project has not been cancelled to date.
A Parliamentary Inquiry into the Impacts of the Western Harbour and Beaches Link Tunnels in the Upper House of the Parliament is also currently in progress, with public hearings completed in September. They are now receiving supplementary questions, and will then go through the process of writing their report which may be released towards the end of the year.
This inquiry was very valuable in emphasising the potential severe and permanent environmental damage from construction of the tunnel that we all know have not been appropriately addressed in the EIS (toxic sediment in Middle Harbour / Sydney Harbour, drops in groundwater and 96% drop in water flow in Burnt Bridge Creek, impacts to wildlife, 3000 mature trees lost in Manly Dam and Manly Lagoon catchments etc.)
You can view video recordings of the hearings or read transcripts from the Parliament website here:
Who decides on whether the project will proceed?
It is ultimately Cabinet that makes the decision on whether to proceed with the project. Before they can make a decision, a Business Case will be prepared by Infrastructure NSW and the Treasury – based on the updated capital costs AND VERY IMPORTANTLY, a set of forecasts of toll revenue based on assumptions on post-pandemic traffic flows through the tunnel.
We know that the traffic forecasts in the EIS are hopelessly optimistic because TfNSW did not make any adjustment or accommodation for long term changes in traffic flows post-pandemic. We know work-from-home (WFH) has been widely adopted following COVID-19 lockdowns and the hybrid WFH models have been adopted by most large companies and all state government agencies. Many workers from the Northern Beaches will demand WFH options as part of their work into the future to allow better work-life balance.
Even in its submissions to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Impacts of the Western Harbour and Beaches Link Tunnels, TfNSW steadfastly refuses to accept that the pandemic will have any long term impact on its forecasts of traffic flows through the tunnel as stated in the EIS.
We hope that a sensible risk-adjusted business case of the Beaches Link Tunnel will be unacceptable to the cabinet led by Perrottet. The Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) will be way below a minimum acceptable level of 1.0. The Benefit Cost Analysis our community group did for the submission to the EIS had a BCR less than 0.80 – using a relatively low capital cost of $10 billion, the grossly exaggerated time-savings claimed by TfNSW in the EIS, and a relatively small drop in traffic flows due to the switch to WFH by residents on the Northern Beaches. When using realistic assumptions on capital costs and future revenues, we believe the poor business case will not justify the political risk of proceeding with a project for the wealthy residents in Mosman (the major beneficiaries of the tunnel) and the residents on the Northern Beaches.
In his first speech after being elected as leader of the NSW Liberal Party and becoming the new Premier, Dominic Perrottet made a big issue that Stuart Ayers, the MP from Penrith was his deputy and together they would ensure that SW and Western Sydney would recover quickly from the pandemic and Western Sydney “would be become the engine of economic growth for the state”. This region is growing rapidly, and has many infrastructure projects planned that are ranked in the highest priority category for investment by independent agencies Infrastructure NSW and Infrastructure Australia. By all measures, these areas are in greater need of funding than a tunnel to the Northern Beaches.
However, with all of these facts about the tunnel known, the Cabinet also knows they made an election promise to build the tunnel, and many of their Liberal Party members support it. They are always reluctant to go back on an election promise, and are concerned about losing votes, so can still choose to go ahead with the project.
What about the future?
Even if the Beaches Link Tunnel is not built, this is not the end of the story. More development is coming to the Northern Beaches, and we need appropriate planning to deal with it. Zali Steggall stated in a recent article in the Manly Daily that it would be alarming if the NSW government were to cancel the tunnel without providing a suitable alternative, and she is right.
The recent Parliamentary Inquiry in the NSW Upper House again demonstrated that other transport options were not seriously considered in the planning stages, just a vehicle tunnel, so other options need to be planned now. Most development in the future is happening from Frenchs Forest to Dee Why / Brookvale and further north – so plans need to be focussed in the east-west Warringah Rd corridor. Could we consider a trackless tram? Could we be leading the way and future-focussed on electrified transport?
All transport planners know that a tolled car tunnel at one end of the Northern Beaches (with no dedicated public transport) was only ever going to increase congestion on all our other major roads. We need good planning for efficient public transport to relieve that congestion, leaving road capacity for those who need to use it, and balanced with appropriate levels of development.
What can I do?
As a community, we need to contact our MPs, the premier and the new Minister for Transport, and let them know our opinion on the tunnel project and what we want for the future on the Northern Beaches.
Not proceeding with the Beaches Link Tunnel shows they have paid attention to the facts that have been revealed during planning – the detailed engineering, environmental science, economics and post-pandemic impacts – and the sensible decision is to change their mind on the project. In general, the wider community will respect an evidence-based decision like this, and we need to give them credit for that.
Otherwise, they risk the tunnel being shown to be another dodgy Utopia-like project, over-budget and under-used, losing billions of taxpayer dollars at a time when we need it the most.
We shall continue to keep you briefed and informed.
Balgowlah Residents Group team