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Freight myopia in Sydney's strategic economic future

By Robert Gibbons - posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013


It has been revealed that Infrastructure NSW (iNSW) has pulled back from its intentions to link Port Botany's intensive truck movements with the new strategic road asset, WestConnex, for financial reasons. WestConnex is a set of roads which will link various freeway discontinuities into a cohesive network.

The revelation came in Jacob Saulwick's "WestConnex solution falls 8km short" (SMH 26 January). He quoted Sydney Ports as saying there is no point in proceeding with the overall road project without the port connection; and an iNSW spokesperson as saying less expensive local changes would suffice. Saulwick concluded with the expectation that Infrastructure Australia would be annoyed with the lack of Port access improvement.

iNSW and its partner agencies had said that the Port would be serviced and that "The scale and complexity of these problems requires a transformational solution…. It must also enable and support urban renewal, local business growth and liveability…. it must also change the way in which projects of this nature are financed and funded so that it is realistically achievable."

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This is a worrying decision for Sydney but reassessment of the original iNSW and related reports points to the conclusion that the whole freight issue – an intrinsic element of every city's prosperity and sustainability – was under-valued. "myopia" is a chronic feature of Sydney's planning culture and now another pane opens on that window, added to heavy rail and trams.

Sydney disregarded freight infrastructure in the nineteenth century and Melbourne pushed ahead; as it and Brisbane are doing now. As for importance, iNSW's consultancy on economic matters reported that trucks on local and arterial roads are a significant cause of congestion: "The economic effects … include reduced productivity for road transport (the higher costs then flow on through the economy), lost leisure time for individuals and distortion of housing, work and transport decisions. In a dynamic sense, congestion also affects the desirability of Sydney overall and so makes it difficult to attract and retain highly skilled, mobile workers". The impact of tolls on businesses and households have to be added.

The 15 Southern Sydney ROC (SSROC) councils and about five neighbouring councils experience the problems of inadequate infrastructure and associated policies – some through Port trucks; some suburban trucks around inland depots; some the car carriers between Wollongong and Sutherland; some the sheer lack of a choice when it comes to daily movements across and through Sydney. SSROC does not participate in strategic transport issues so much as resource sharing; and where sub-sets such as the three St George councils cooperated with a regional transport study in 2000-01, they were ignored by State government. One SSROC participant has written: "I agree we need to increase the use of rail from Port Botany rather than increasing traffic on the already congested road network. It is an issue SSROC recognises and should be lobbying over".

This is a critical region in Sydney's demographic planning as it will absorb up to a third of the infill load of growth – some 200,000 to 350,000 additional residents (depending on geographical definitions) to about 2036. In the absence of transport reforms that were excluded from iNSW's and the Transport Masterplan, congestion will escalate as will other effects.

A variety of reports have been produced by Infrastructure Australia (IA), Sydney Ports Corporation, iNSW, RDA/Sydney, various submitters to inquiries, and industry bodies. IA's "National Land Freight Strategy Update" (2012) reported the failure of "planning" and "collaboration". Not one has got the framework right – for example, the issues that have been under-stated include:

  • A tripling of container movements to and from Port Botany then Port Kembla within a medium timeframe (20 years) but much higher than that within Sydney's economic sustainability timeframe (40+ years) – thus about a million truck movements a year rising to an unbearable crescendo – with a 30-year planning pipeline which requires decisions sooner rather than later.
  • An eventual reduced relevance of the only Port-related road project, WestConnex, due to container volumes and destinations, Port limitations and local traffic conflicts; but with the absence of better alternatives which have long lead-in times.
  • The employment imbalance between eastern and western Sydney – 300,000 jobs growing to double that fairly quickly - which leads to road and rail over-loading, public and private costs (including toll imposts), and inefficiency in the logistics, transport, waste, land use development and infrastructure investment communities.
  • Need for strategic integration of land use, transport and waste management planning on a much better basis. There is ambiguity about the timing and functions of various rail and road projects around the Ports, between the Ports and InterModal Terminals, into likely employment zones, and between cities.
  • The impact of congestion, tolls, car ownership and operating costs, and health effects, on more than a million people.
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Trucking and associated planning would be an excellent place for the O'Farrell Government to start with its policy of restoring local government's engagement in planning. Brisbane and Melbourne are also more advanced in this aspect. The alternative direction on the table is a strong commitment to railing all containers destined for the greater west of Sydney to an employment zone in Western Sydney – at Eastern Creek and nearby. The only truck movements left on the eastern seabord would be local movements – probably no more than 15 per cent of the total.

Is this practicable? (The long history back to 1979 will not be repeated here.) The following distribution map shows the current pattern which is continuing in direction:

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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