Canberra’s light rail is ready to roll, but it’s been decades in the making


April 19, 2019 10:40:05

It might seem like talk of light rail in the nation’s capital has been going on forever — and that’s because it has (almost*).

While the first trams — or light rail vehicles, if you’re feeling fancy — will be rolling down Northbourne Avenue from tomorrow, talk of a light rail system in Canberra can be traced back to the city’s founding.

The capital was constructed with light rail in mind — it featured in Walter Burley Griffin’s plans for the city, which reserved corridors on streets like Northbourne Avenue for trams.

But like anything with a big price tag, the project came with plenty of controversy and debate over where it should run, what it should look like and how much should be paid for it.

It’s the largest infrastructure project in Canberra’s history and thousands are expected to be taking advantage of free rides across the weekend.

But many of those lucky souls will be blissfully unaware of the argy-bargy that came before.

Why not cross the lake twice?

The new line runs from Civic to Gungahlin and that route was sort-of always on the cards, but there were some other ideas thrown around.

In 2003, the ACT Government seriously considered dumping Gungahlin (for the time being), and constructing a network centred on inner-city Canberra.

It would have crossed the lake twice and linked Civic with the ANU, Parliament House, Kingston and Russell.

Then-planning minister Simon Corbell saw it is a great option to activate struggling parts of the inner-city.

“Great development opportunity in places like Civic West, which has been underdeveloped to date,” he said at the time.

“We can make it a much more lively residential and commercial precinct if we have light rail in place.”

Vicki Dunne from the then-(and still)-opposition, was far from convinced by the proposal.

“I think that it’s a system that’s almost bound to fail,” she said.

It never really progressed, and a few years later the Government was going cap-in-hand to the Federal Government looking for funds to make the Gungahlin line a reality.

Can you spare some change, Federal Government?

Former chief minister Jon Stanhope had long held a view that light rail simply would not be feasible without federal funding.

That funding was applied for in 2008, around the time the former Rudd Federal Government was offering money through the Building Australia Fund.

It was listed alongside such projects as a Very Fast Train (VFT) linking Canberra with other capitals, a major solar power station, and the Majura Parkway.

Somewhat remarkably, all but one of those things are now a reality. There’s no prizes for guessing which one isn’t (RIP, VFT).

But while the Federal Government did contribute some funds towards stage one of light rail, it was largely left to the ACT to foot the bill — and that didn’t go down well with everyone.

By the time then-chief minister Katy Gallagher promised the project before the 2012 election, the price tag being thrown around was $600m.

A post-election deal with the Greens, who had long pushed for the project, all-but cemented the project’s future.

The Liberals were not always opposed, but by 2014 then-Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson had formed a view that would stick.

“Now is not the time to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a tram track between the city and Gungahlin, that we simply cannot afford,” he said.

While the ACT Government ploughed on in laying the groundwork for Capital Metro, the Opposition promised to rip up contracts if they won office in 2016.

Greater investment in buses was proposed as a cheaper, more cost-effective — if slightly less flashy — proposal.

Will it be worth it?

The test for light rail will be easily measured; how many people actually use it consistently, once it is up and running.

That will also determine the future of stage two, which is now deep in the planning process.

The cost has been higher for some than others, and among those keenest to see construction at an end are the businesses blocked from street access while the project was brought to fruition.

Some have reported revenue losses of up to 75 per cent as they struggled with decreased foot traffic caused by heavy construction.

Every day commuters who have been frustrated by years of lane closures, and road work as tracks were laid along one of Canberra’s busiest traffic corridors.

But will it all be worth it?

For the tens of thousands of people the Government claims will queue up to ride the thing on Saturday, the proof will be in the commuting.

*Maybe not forever, but Canberra was designed more than 100 years ago so it’s been a while.








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April 19, 2019 06:21:11

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