Auditor-general to look at light rail costs

FULL STEAM AHEAD: A view from high up in the Wickham Transport Interchange earlier this year, looking east along the rail corridor. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

FULL STEAM AHEAD: A view from high up in the Wickham Transport Interchange earlier this year, looking east along the rail corridor. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

AFTER repeated allegations of cost blow-outs, the Audit Office of NSW has agreed to a performance audit of the Newcastle transport reforms.

The Auditor-General’s interest in Newcastle’s light rail and transport interchange has been welcomed by Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi and Labor’s Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp.

Dr Faruqi made public correspondence between herself and the Auditor-General, Margaret Crawford, that showed the audit office had originally planned to audit the Newcastle spending program in 2019-20.

But after Dr Faruqi complained about the timing – saying it was little use doing it after the work was finished –  the scheduling of the audit was brought forward, and is now displayed on the audit office website as taking place in the 2017-18 year.

A description of the audit is described as “pending”.

“I am pleased to see that after a long dialogue, the NSW Auditor-General will include Newcastle light rail in its program this year,” Dr Faruqi said.

“There is a huge stink over this project. The lack of a public business case, the cost increases, the lack of a light rail master plan and the huge costs for a relatively small stretch of light rail.

“’Revitalising Newcastle’ is all about political compromises and property developers and has nothing to do with the public transport needs of Newcastle.

“What we have is over half a billion dollars spent for less than 3km of light rail. This is an absolute scandal.

“We know time after time, the Government has chosen the worst possible option for the people of Newcastle and I look forward to the Auditor-General investigating the reality of what has happened here.”

Asked to comment, Transport for NSW said it understood the investigation was taking place, and that “the timing of the audit and its scope are matters for the Auditor-General’s office”.

Funding for Revitalising Newcastle was lifted by $150 million in August, taking the total to $650 million, but the state government denied the money was to cover claimed budget over-runs.

Labor had claimed the previous month that a leaked Cabinet document revealed a blow-out of $35 million.

Mr Crakanthorp said the light rail was such a massive spending commitment that it needed the “proper oversight and accountability’ that an audit would bring.

“The taxpayers of Newcastle have been shown a complete disregard by this government,” Mr Crakanthorp said.

“We are funding Transport Minister Andrew Constance’s experiment for the city of Newcastle. The most expensive light rail route ever delivered for the most outrageous price.”

In parliament on Wednesday, Mr Crakanthorp said planning for the Newcastle project was “shambolic”, with the decision to run light rail on Hunter Street “a punt” by Mr Constance.

Newcastle Greens councillor John Mackenzie said the audit was an “important victory” that would provide “some level of transparency”.