Proposed key network enhancements, from Connecting Our City, City of Sydney, 2012

Sydney’s progressive Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, has called for a section of the NSW Government’s proposed $1.6 billion south-eastern suburbs light rail line to be put underground.

Residents of inner city Surry Hills are worried the NSW Government’s plan to run the line along Devonshire St will “destroy the heartland of Surry Hills”.

The Lord Mayor is reported as saying:

While action to improve transport is welcome, there are real concerns that people’s homes and Moore Park will be impacted if the light rail line is built at street level…. A tunnel will be faster, cheaper over the life of the system, and will provide a far better service for events at Moore Park.

As I’ve noted before, Clover Moore is doing some fantastic things in Sydney in relation to cycling.

But sadly, progressive politicians can be as cynical, opportunistic and hypocritical as the rest of them (as the Victorian Greens repeatedly demonstrate e.g. see here and here).

Have a good look at the first exhibit. It’s from Sydney City Council’s showpiece 2012 transport report, Connecting Our City.

Notwithstanding the Lord Mayor’s concern for the welfare of Surry Hills voters, the report shows Council itself proposes light rail should run along Devonshire St as far as Crown St, with a possible future extension to Anzac Pde!

There’s no indication of a tunnel – it’s all at street level! Further, Council prioritises Devonshire St ahead of Foveaux St, even though the latter is considerably wider and is largely commercial uses.

Ms Moore appears to be playing politics. After all, the State Government’s paying for the project, not Council.

Curiously, despite its recency and strategic importance, the Connecting Our City report showing Council’s preference for Devonshire St is no longer available on Council’s web site. Perhaps it’s just a technical oversight?

Be that as it may, as a former resident of Surry Hills, I can appreciate the concerns of residents. While they’ll get an accessibility benefit from light rail, Devonshire St is predominantly residential and relatively narrow.

Light rail would probably eliminate all on-street parking spaces along this alignment. It could also bring more noise to the neighbourhood.

Modern steel-wheeled vehicles are better than in the past but they’re not silent. Moreover, the enhanced accessibility could promote more night-time activities and increase the level of nuisance.

But from the wider community’s perspective, undergrounding of transport infrastructure is very costly. Digging a tunnel from Central Station to Anzac Pde could cost $1 billion or more and delay implementation by a year.

The net cost will depend on the value of compulsorily acquiring an apartment block, as well as bridging works over South Dowling St, that a tunnel would avoid. That’s unknown but I’d expect the additional cost of tunnelling to still be high – it appears Council arrived at the same conclusion as the NSW Government on this point.

That’s money that wouldn’t be available for other worthwhile uses, including public transport improvements. For example, it could be applied to extending light rail along Oxford Street to Bondi Junction.

I think the Lord Mayor’s politicking conveniently misrepresents the nature of light rail on this occasion.

Its great advantage is it mostly runs on streets using existing road space, preferably within its own right-of-way. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago we called them ‘trams’ (they still do in Melbourne) and in the US they were known as ‘streetcars’.

Using road space largely avoids the high cost of acquiring properties, digging tunnels or constructing elevated platforms typically required for heavy rail. Light rail also saves on engineering costs because it can negotiate steep grades and tight turns.

So we should expect light rail – trams or streetcars – to use streets predominantly. Being at-grade and an integral part of the streetscape is how it contributes positively to the functioning of the public realm.

Some have suggested that Oxford St should be used instead of Devonshire St – it’s wider and already has lots of commercial activity.

As the first exhibit shows, though, an Oxford St alignment wouldn’t provide a direct link to Central Station – an important consideration for clearing crowds out of Sydney Football Stadium and the Cricket Ground.

Foveaux, Albion or Cleveland streets are other possibilities, but these are major traffic arteries and the cost to efficiency of freight and buses could be too high. Council evidently thought so when it released Connecting Our City last year and nominated Devonshire St.

Devonshire St is straight so it can accommodate long light rail vehicles but it’s narrow. Wider streets are preferable if they’re available but there are plenty of examples of light rail systems elsewhere using narrow streets e.g. San Francisco, Lisbon, Amsterdam (see second exhibit).

I’ve written a number of articles before on the important theme of why and how the cost of infrastructure projects escalates (e.g. see here, here and here). The Lord Mayor illustrates one reason – residents demand their amenity be protected and are very good at wielding their political muscle.

That cost could come directly in higher capital and/or operating costs e.g. a tunnel. Or it could come in reduced efficiency e.g. re-routing via Oxford St or another major artery.

Land owners want to be insulated from, or compensated for, any detriment in land value arising from new infrastructure. Yet they don’t want to be deprived of any increase in land value arising from public investments either.

Unless it can be shown the cost difference is small – which seems unlikely – the NSW Government should ignore the Lord Mayor’s politicking and push ahead.

However it should work hard to minimise the noise from light rail vehicles. That would benefit all land uses along the 12 km route, as well as passengers. It would create a more receptive environment for further expansions of the light rail network.

Washington St, San Francisco