Newcastle business owners seek completion date as light rail takes shape

Inner-city businesses are in the dark about when light-rail works will end, but Newcastle Now chairman Edward Duc said the sight of almost-completed track in Scott Street could help lift their spirits.

In response to questions this week from the Newcastle Herald about when Hunter and Scott streets would reopen, a Revitalising Newcastle representative said: “Light rail construction is running on time and on budget. The community can expect to see trams on tracks for testing towards the end of this year and light rail open to the public in early 2019.”

Mr Duc said he had heard various rumours about the completion date, including as early as September.

The landscaped track is taking shape in parts of Scott Street, giving an idea of how it will integrate with Market Street Lawn and the harbour. Mr Duc said seeing the track in an advanced state would help retailers who had been dealing with the uncertainty of when the work would end.

“Having that vision that you’re talking about – and I totally agree with you – and September as a deadline, I mean, that would be so lifting for them,” he said. 

Newcastle City Council and Newcastle Now announced on Thursday that the council car park in King Street would be open for free from 7am to 4.30pm on Saturdays to help businesses buckling under the weight of the light-rail works.

The council said the decision to scrap the $7 fee for about 400 parking spaces on Saturdays until the end of the year followed a conversation on Facebook between retailers and councillor Carol Duncan.

“A number of traders expressed … that providing free parking will help reduce the difficulty for shoppers of locating a car park on a Saturday,” Cr Duncan said.

The move may come too late for Cellarbrations liquor store owner Tim Owens, who said his Hunter Street business was “touch and go” after months of light-rail work outside his front door.

“I haven’t made the decision to close the doors, but it is on the cards,” he said. “I’ve asked for a completion date, but I’m not getting anything. I’m not very happy about it.

“I clearly stated, ‘I need to know how long I’m going to be losing money for so I can make informed decisions about whether we do close the doors or whether we stay open and make a loss for a period of time.’ I still haven’t got that back.” 

He said contractors had built a temporary path across Hunter Street to his store after he requested better access, but the business was still losing thousands of dollars a week.  

He had been told verbally that “major works” on the project could be completed in September but had not received a definitive response to an email request in January. 

Revitalising Newcastle program director Michael Cassel supplied the Herald with a list of 35 businesses which had opened in the city’s east, civic, west end and Darby Street precincts since light-rail work began.

“We understand construction is disruptive, which is why we’re running campaigns to promote and activate the city with a stream of popular, family-friendly events that directly engage and support local businesses,” he said.

“It’s encouraging to see more than 35 new businesses have set up shop in the city centre since light rail construction began, showing confidence in Revitalising Newcastle’s investment in the city and the benefits of light rail when it is complete.

“With over 4000 off-street car parks within a 10-minute walk of Hunter Street and frequent buses running to the city every 15 minutes, Newcastle is still accessible and the local traders that make it unique are open for business.

“In the meantime, construction is progressing and we’re on track to have light-rail vehicles running for testing later this year and operating for the public in 2019.”

Sydney’s $2.1 billion light-rail project is a year behind schedule and will not be running until 2020. Design and construction subcontractor Acciona has launched Supreme Court action against the state government over $1 billion in cost disputes.