By this point in the ACT election campaign, the Canberra Light Rail is surely as famous as Thomas the Tank Engine and The Orient Express. The tales surrounding it are equally diverse, is it a case-study in how not to make public policy, or a vital infrastructure project? Is it a necessary component of revitalising Northborne Avenue, or a one-way commuter service that serves a minority of the Canberra community? Is the train itself the issue, or what it represents about the incumbent government’s priorities?

In the lead up to October 15, Woroni sought to investigate: what is light rail, and why is it so controversial?

1. The Facts: Where does it go? What is it?

Stage 1 of the light rail project will run from Gungahlin to the City Centre, down the major roadways of Flemington Road and Northborne Avenue. As part of the construction process, new traffic lights will be installed at a number of intersections along the route. Once the light rail is completed, the light rail will have priority at each intersection.

There will be thirteen stops, with the major sites along the route being EPIC, Dickson, and the City Centre. The journey time is estimated to be twenty-four minutes Gungahlin to City. Trains will depart every six minutes during peak hour and every fifteen during off-peak. Each train will have the capacity to carry 200 passengers.

It is budgeted to cost 1.63 billion over the cost of the project. The business case for the project claims it will return $1.20 for every dollar spent. This claim has been met with scepticism from a number of partisan and non-partisan camps – the Auditor General, the Grattan Institute, grass-roots political organisations in Canberra, and the Liberal Party.

As part of the election campaign, the Labor party have pledged to embark on stage two of the light rail project, connecting the City to Woden.

2. Why light rail?

The Barr government and light rail advocates assert that the light rail is part of a plan to reduce congestion along the Flemington-Northbourne corridor. Transport Canberra states on their website the light rail will  ‘deliver high quality, reliable and frequent public transport down one of Canberra’s busiest corridors… [it] will attract people, businesses and investment to the Northbourne Avenue and the City. Northbourne Avenue creates a unique opportunity for the Government to capitalise on its light rail investment due to its land ownership along the corridor.’

The Greens argue that it will encourage more people to utilise public transport, and therefore contribute to a decrease in car usage in Canberra.

Unfortunately, representatives of ACT Light Rail and its proponents in the community did not respond to requests for comment.

3. Why the controversy?

The drivers of the resistance to light rail in the community are diverse and extend far beyond opposition to the idea of a tram.

One of the key sources of consternation regarding the light rail is the cost-benefit ratio of the project. The ACT Auditor-General raised scepticism about the project’s claimed $1.20 return on each dollar spent in an audit of Capital Metro tabled to the Legislative Assembly earlier this year. While generally complementary of the way the project had been managed, the audit report, ‘Initiation of the Light Rail Project’, argued that the $1.20 cost-benefit claim should be treated with caution, as over sixty percent of the project’s benefits were unrelated to transport. The Auditor General noted that this percentage is ‘large compared with other transport infrastructure projects’. In contrast to the 1.20 ratio, when wider economic benefits are excluded the return was a mere 0.49 cents to the dollar.

Critical to the estimate of the $1.20 return on cost was the increased value the government would receive from land sales along the Northbourne Corridor.

The Canberra Liberals argue that the Light Rail is not necessary to realise this value. Candice Burch, an ANU-trained economist and Liberal candidate for Kurrajong, told Woroni that “…other measures – such as a better bus system and changes to ACT planning laws will also stimulate economic development along this corridor.”

“The opportunity cost of this project is huge. Every dollar spent on light rail is a dollar less that the government can spend on health, education and other essential services.”

Burch’s claim is buttressed by Grattan Institute Transport Program Director Marion Terrill, who, writing in the Canberra Times on April 4, cast doubt on the $1.20 claim. “[S]uch benefits are highly speculative. ‘Wider economic impacts’ are difficult to estimate… [and] adding them to the benefits included in conventional benefit-cost analysis risks counting them twice. A more conventional calculation… such as the one Infrastructure Australia requires… sees the benefit-cost ratio fall to less than 0.5. That is, every dollar spent would return less than 50 cents in benefit to the community.”

“According to the ACT government’s failed submission to Infrastructure Australia in 2012,” Terrill writes, “ the alternative option, bus rapid transit, would have delivered similar benefits to light rail, but at less than half the cost. Cost-benefit analysis showed that bus rapid transit would yield $1.98 of benefits for every dollar invested, whereas light rail would produce just $1.02.”

The resistance in the community goes beyond dry economics. The choice of route in particular is a critical factor in some Canberra residents ‘opposition to the proposed Light Rail. Can The Tram, a grass-roots political group “come from diverse backgrounds and political persuasions”  to lobby against the Stage 1 Light Rail, they argue that the Gungahlin-City route is part of a pattern of the Barr government ignoring the South Side.

“One only has to visit Woden or Tuggeranong Town centres to see the effect of the Government’s focus,” they wrote in a response to Woroni’s request for comment, “instead of addressing the problem through more responsible policies that seek to see more growth in the neglected parts of the city, with its Civic-Gungahlin light rail the Government is doing the opposite.”

The Gungahlin-Civic route is seen as sub-optimal by some in the community. Whilst the government has promised to fund future stages if re-elected, this will come at greater cost. Per Can The Tram’s members “many people who otherwise would be supportive of light rail are opposed to the Civic to Gungahlin route specifically…  Stage 1 [is] fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t really go anywhere of note except Gungahlin, and …EPIC.”

Instead, they argue, “[had] Stage 1 went somewhere like the Parliamentary Triangle, Manuka, Belconnen via ANU and University of Canberra and Calvary… it would undoubtably (sic) have more support and would be harder to oppose. Instead, the Government missed an opportunity by going for Gungahlin. It’s really stuffed things up and made things difficult for itself.”

Whilst the Barr government would regret that the Canberra community has not embraced the light rail with the enthusiasm of Springfield towards monorails in The Simpsons, they’ll no doubt be hoping to avoid a similar fate at the polls on October 15: a trainwreck.
Robert Bower is a member of the Canberra Liberals

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.