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Next stop: light rail?

It may seem like a case of déjà vu, but ACT voters can be forgiven for thinking they have heard it all before when it comes to bringing light rail to Canberra, reports student journalist Alexandria Caughey Hutt.

In the 2008 election race, the Labor, Liberal and Greens parties all made commitments to the viability of the fast link network as the future of ACT transport.   But there could be good reason for the lack of action from the politicians. Canberrans may want light rail, but they don’t want to pay for it, and they would sacrifice the benefits of the proposed transport link in favour of a far cheaper bus rapid transit.

According to a community survey, commissioned by the ACT Government, over two-thirds of respondents favoured light rail over a rapid bus link.  This dropped to less than half after respondents were informed that the cost of light rail was more than double the proposed bus price tag.

See a government fact sheet comparing the transport options.

Despite this, both the Labor and Greens parties have announced they will go ahead with a light rail connection if they are elected on October 20.  Labor is looking to build a line between Gungahlin and the CBD, while the Greens plan to connect the city with surrounding Molonglo suburbs.

The ACT Light Rail lobby group has welcomed both the Labor and Greens policies, but said they were disappointed the Greens did not make their policy a part of their ‘Agreement to Govern.’  ACT Light Rail Chair, Damien Haas, said they were concerned about the similarity between the policies announced this time around and those made in 2008.

Mr Haas pointed out that all of the currently-implemented transport polices were bus-focused and this made him ‘cautiously optimistic’ about any light rail promises.  The group said that the timing of the policy is opportunistic and hoped it would not fall by the wayside if Labor wins power again.

“Northbourne Avenue is Canberra’s most congested road and is an obvious first place to begin introducing a technology which has proven the ability to increase public transport patronage and decrease travel times,” he said.

There has been contentionover the official costing of the Labor policy, which has dropped from over $850 million to $614 million, but the change was dismissed as a result of a design change.  The Greens have promised to dedicate over $200 million from next year’s budget to get the project up and running.

Labor said they have been actively looking at light rail as a viable transport option for Canberra, in particular to address the increasing congestion on Northborne Avenue.  Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, Simon Corbell, said light rail won over a bus rapid transit model because it could be adapted as population density increased.

“In deciding on light rail as the best rapid transit option, the transformative nature of this project in changing the face of our city, making it more compact, more sustainable, and allowing more people to live in close proximity to their place of employment and within easy access to a fast and efficient transport system, cannot be underestimated,” he said.

ACT Greens MLA, Amanda Bresnan, said they were pleased the Labor party have joined them in a push to bring light rail to Canberra.  Ms Bresnan said the benefits of light rail outstripped buses and was the key to a sustainable Canberra.  The Greens believe they are the best people to bring the plans to life, highlighting previous commitments by Labor have never amounted to anything.

“We have concerns the Labor Party has only committed money for further feasibility work on light rail,” she said.

“The Greens have guaranteed significant capital funding of $200 million as a commitment to the community and private investors that rail will be built.”

The Greens plan to break ground first, promising construction would start in 2015, while Labor will lay tracks just in time for the next election in 2016.  Labor has backed their time projection by saying it compares to the timeframe outlined for a similar light rail construction on the Gold Coast.

The Liberal party has questioned the Government’s ability to follow through on the plan, saying Labor’s track record with major infrastructure projects does not give them much confidence.  They have criticised the Greens policy, which they claim lacks information about costs and benefits.

A Liberal party spokesperson said they were committed to making the ACTION network more effective so buses could be used as a more reliable transport option.  This plan comes in response to community criticism that the current routes in the suburbs are lacking, but the Liberals are keeping an open mind and said they would consider all aspects of public transport for Canberra.

“We recently announced our public transport policy, which has a focus on getting the basics of public transport right,” she said.

“This would involve, amongst other things, $3 million for a 12-month trial of a free shuttle service in the Belconnen, Tuggeranong and Gungahlin to feed into rapid bus lines.”

Mr Haas believes that light rail is the best option for mass transit and would be the most effective choice to be able to grow with Canberra in the future.  ACT Light Rail stressed they were not anti-car or bus, but said light rail would be the backbone of a strong and integrated transport network.

“We will continue to pressure the Government to deliver light rail if the ALP are returned on October 20,” he said.

“The timetable they have set out needs to be adhered to, and we will hold them to their commitments.”

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