IN getting the numbers to pass legislation permanently shutting the Newcastle rail corridor, the Coalition state government agreed to a Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party demand that it carry out a business case for extending the 2.1-kilometre light rail line that is the centrepiece of the government’s push to revitalise the city centre.
Some 18 months later, the Shooters say the government has had long enough to come up with a study. But in visiting Newcastle this week, Transport Minister Andrew Constance made it clear the government’s preference was to keep things in the here and now when he said it would be up to “future ministers . . to make the call” on any extension of the light rail.
Unfortunately for the Coalition, its continued refusal to release the original 2014 business case for the Newcastle light rail has left it with a political Achilles' heel when it comes to the economics of the project.
The opposed to light rail argue – with some logic – that the business case must not have stacked up, on paper, if the government refused to release it. But the government has repeatedly argued that the tram system is just one part of a broader vision to improve the city, meaning it should not be looked at in isolation.
In this light, there is already evidence – in the form of a dramatic apartment building spree in and around Wickham – that light rail is succeeding in the government’s aim of using infrastructure to spur private sector investment.
And that’s before so much as a metre of light rail track has been laid. If light rail does breathe new life into the Newcastle CBD, then the calls for an extension of the route will surely follow. When the Newcastle Herald visited France last year as a guest of light rail operator Keolis Downer, we saw a number of cities where initial opposition to light rail was quickly converted into a chorus of support for extensions to the system.
It is too early to say if the same thing will happen here. But if the CBD system proves itself a winner, then that may a better time better time to look at the business case for an extension, rather than now, when there is very little in the way of hard data to go on.
In the meantime, the government should consider releasing the original business case, even if it fails to flatter. It has decided to push ahead with light rail regardless of its critics, and these things have a habit of becoming public, sooner or later, anyway.
ISSUE: 38, 473.