WHEN Mike Baird came to Newcastle in June 2013 to announce a $460 million light rail plan for the vacant heavy rail corridor, the then lord mayor, Jeff McCloy, was waiting for him.
Cr McCloy – as he was then – wanted light rail running down Hunter Street. He’d seen it work in Calgary, Canada, and Newcastle City Council had proposed such a plan in 2010, before he was voted in. Now there was money to pay for it, the lord mayor was adamant that light rail “must” run down Hunter Street.
And he got his way. A good two-thirds of the eventual “hybrid” route announced in May 2014 runs along Hunter Street, just as the lord mayor had wanted.
Now however, Mr McCloy has a dramatically different view, saying the government’s plan is “a recipe for disaster”.
What’s more, he says he warned the government “privately” from the start that light rail was a bad idea for Newcastle, and that a properly designed bus service was the answer. Mr McCloy said light rail was “a political decision” at a time when the Coalition had a string of Liberal MPs, including Newcastle’s Tim Owen, in the Hunter.
“Fundamentally I didn’t think it was a sound one but when Sydney makes a decision to spend some money in Newcastle ...” Mr McCloy said.
“Privately I was telling them you are mad. Privately I was telling them to put in buses. Something was going to be put in Hunter Street, albeit at enormous cost, but I was privately telling them then, back in the GPT days, that it should be buses. Have the interchange so it takes the buses to the suburbs where the population is. Buy the best buses in the world so you can take wheelchairs and surfboards and dogs and cats and horses – whatever they want – it’s still smarter than spending all this money for the very few people who are going to use it.”
Mr McCloy denies he is being hypocritical in speaking out now, saying he had played no part in the project since resigning as lord mayor in August 2014.
“I thought it would get more passengers going down Hunter Street than down the corridor but the devil is in the detail and what they have done is completely against the revitalisation of Newcastle,” Mr McCloy said.
“Every commercial fibre in my body tells me this is the wrong thing to do. In my opinion, this will devalue the worth of property in Newcastle. For money spent it’s an incredibly poor decision. We haven’t got enough people living in and around town, unlike other cities where light rail works. Without the population, no matter how much is spent, it will never work.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think they’d remove all the car parking, then raise the line up by 100mm and all that other stuff that’s there when you go into the detail.”