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Tram network remains a pipe dream

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The future is trams!

That was the message delivered by the State Government last year, with five huge billboards spruiking Adelaide’s new tram network springing up in the city (two of them), Prospect, Norwood and Henley Beach.

While some of these proposed tram networks are long-term proposals, several were promised in the short-term, including the city network and the Port Adelaide tram extension, previously scrapped in the 2012 budget.

The Government was so excited by this aspect of its grand, multi-billion-dollar ‘integrated transport plan’, that it launched its billboard campaign to encourage the community to provide feedback during the consultation period – a period which coincided with the frenetic pre-election phase.

The billboards promised that “The future is …”, and then the name of the particular tram network and a photoshopped image of, for example, a tram rolling along Prospect Road.

This vision of the future is now looking almost as fanciful as the personal jetpack or the hoverboard.

There is no sign of a tram in last week’s state budget. Not even a few shekels to begin planning. Nothing.

This is despite that fact that the grand transport plan includes in its “short term” priorities the “Portlink” tram extension to Port Adelaide and Outer Harbor, with extensions to Semaphore and West Lakes, and a “Citylink” route around the CBD.

The tram system is not the only short-term transport measure in the plan that hasn’t gained any funding in this budget.

Cycleways have been completely defunded for the coming financial year.

The transport plan also promised bus “super stops”. Again, there’s nothing in the budget.

Bus system improvements? Nothing.

The transport money is all soaked up by the South Road upgrade and the $160 million O-Bahn tunnel – both considered short-term priorities in the transport plan. There is also some money to begin work on a second freeway interchange for Mt Barker.

One of the Government's tram billboards.

One of the Government’s tram billboards.

Of course, with Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis crying poor and yet to allocate a massive $332 million cut to the health budget, the transport plan was always going to suffer, particularly with a Federal Government determined to fund only road projects – not public transport.

And this was the plan’s weakness from the start.

Establishing a long-term comprehensive plan for transport is an excellent idea – and Labor’s blueprint easily trumped the Liberal’s non-existent alternative.

However, the funding assumptions beneath it have already shown to be flawed, less than a year after it was released.

Transport department bureaucrats argued at the release of the plan last October that it could be funded, if South Australia received the same quantum of Commonwealth funding as it had received for transport over the previous 10 years.

It’s now blindingly obvious that this won’t happen.

Tony Abbott says he wants to be known as an infrastructure Prime Minister, but it has always been clear that his funding priorities are road projects.

The question for the State Government will be whether to continue with the sepia-toned dream of restoring Adelaide’s lost tram network, or to work out some smarter ways to spend a constrained transport budget.

The O-Bahn tunnel, to shave travel time from the Hackney Road exit point of the busway to the CBD, is a good, if expensive, idea.

The busway is South Australia’s most successful piece of public transport infrastructure, which also has spin-offs for car commuters coming into the city from the north-east  (it’s no surprise that North-East and Payneham roads bucked the trend and achieved acceptable travel times for the afternoon peak, in the latest RAA congestion survey).

While there has been some criticism of the tunnel concept, most South Australians are fans of the O-Bahn.

The University of Sydney’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies conducts quarterly transport opinion surveys across Australia.

In the September 2013 survey, a new question was asked about respondents’ preferred public transport investment: if new transport investment in either a light rail or a bus rapid transit – both in a dedicated corridor away from other traffic – was proposed, which one would you vote for?

Overall, 63 per cent of Australians preferred light rail while 29 per cent favoured bus rapid transit.

However, in states where bus rapid transit exists – South Australia and Queensland – the bus option was much more favoured.

In SA, 41 per cent of us preferred the bus system, while 51 per cent wanted light rail.

And this result came despite only one sliver of the Adelaide transport system being served by the O-Bahn.

It’s a result worth pondering by our transport planners as they grapple with fiscal realities.

Rapid bus transit doesn’t have to be heavily engineered, like the expensive O-Bahn.

In Brisbane, for example, Australia’s most extensive bus rapid transit system is simply a series of bus-only road corridors, which serve millions of customers a year and take traffic away from busy all-in roads. Similar systems are in place in Western Sydney.

It’s hard to see how such a system could replicate all of the proposed Adelaide tram networks, particularly in the city and inner suburbs. However, the Port Road corridor would appear to have ample room for at least some sections of bus-only, separated lanes.

Still, even in Adelaide, most people would prefer a light rail option.

Other Australian cities are committed to new tram systems, including Newcastle, Canberra, Perth, Sydney and the Gold Coast.

It shouldn’t be too hard.

Our problem is decades of lack of transport planning, and long under-funded transport infrastructure.

All our dough has gone into electrifying the rail system (and we can’t even afford to finish the job), and fixing up the South Road goat track.

There are some in the State Government who will continue to push for tram funding, including transport minister Stephen Mullighan who told InDaily: ‘The Portlink and Citylink projects are considered a priority and will proceed as funding becomes available.”

While he highlighted transport projects that have been funded, including South Road, the O-Bahn, new park and ride facilities and bicycle “boulevards”, he indicated that the state’s transport task had just become tougher: “Given the Federal Government has now declared public transport projects will no longer receive Commonwealth funding, the State Government faces increased pressure to fund projects over the forward estimates and into the future.”

In other words, if South Australians really want trams, we’re going to have join the push.

 

 

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