Light rail: affordable, beneficial and timely

Like most Canberrans I’ve been proud of the international recognition our city has been getting lately.

We’re the most liveable city according to the OECD, The New York Times recently celebrated our “big-sky beauty, breezy civic pride and a decidedly hipster underbelly” and last year we entered the QS rankings of Best Student Cities in the world for the first time.

Every Canberran plays a role in this and benefits from living in our great city. Government can play its part, too. Often politicians are criticised for failing to take a long term vision, but we have a long term plan for a booming, lively, liveable city long into the future.

Last week, we called for expressions of interest to build and operate the first stage of our light rail network from Gungahlin, one of Australia’s fastest growing suburbs, to the City. This is one part of a long term vision for a thriving Canberra.

In transport, projects like this and Majura Parkway and better bike infrastructure will make it easier to get around our city. But beyond transport, it’s about building a Canberra where it’s easy to stay connected with free wifi in the city, where smart businesses are spinning out of our universities, where apprentices are honing their skills in a booming construction sector – and where the dynamism we see in areas like NewActon, is mirrored along Northbourne Avenue and in all our town centres. We can already see this happening with new developments around the lake in Tuggeranong and Belconnen. Liveability is about healthy suburbs as much as it is about urban hipsters.

Employment is obviously key to liveability and there’s widespread and justified concern about the impact on jobs as the Abbott Liberal government rips the heart out of the public service. Unlike other cities where the major employer cuts jobs, we won’t get any Commonwealth help. We are on our own and the ACT Government is well aware of the need for projects that create jobs and stimulate the economy.

Similarly there is no disagreement that our economy in the ACT needs to diversify. Government can play a part in this. We are not business and business has to take the lead, but we can create an environment where government activity and investment promotes opportunities for our entrepreneurs.

This is why we’re building the University of Canberra Public Hospital. We need another hospital and building it will create jobs. We could build this anywhere, but by building it at the University of Canberra we create a new opportunity for UC to grow. An on campus hospital gives them a competitive edge. It attracts more students and researchers, which in turn creates jobs and economic activity beyond the campus. This shows how, with careful targeting, necessary government investment can have double barrelled impact beyond its obvious purpose and boost the economy.

It’s the same with light rail. It’s an important transport investment. With commuters from Gungahlin to the City set to spend almost an hour in their car each morning by 2031 we need to act and act now to avoid problems in the long term. But Canberrans deserve more bang for their buck. Light rail is proven to stimulate investment. People who never use buses will use light rail. Businesses and developers know this and they are attracted to the permanence of light rail. Once someone buys a home or opens a business near a light rail stop, they know it’s there to stay, which makes the investment a more appealing proposition. The business case we released last week shows an estimated $1 billion in economic benefits from phase one of Capital Metro.

And we can afford light rail. By entering into a Public Private Partnership, business bears the upfront cost and most of the risk. We can spread the cost over a generation: the generation that uses Capital Metro. We don’t pay until Canberrans are riding light rail along Northbourne Avenue. An expert, private consortium builds light rail and operates it and the city pays them to run and maintain it. The annual cost will be a relatively small part of the ACT’s overall budget – to put things into context we expect to spend $2.5 billion on infrastructure over the next four years out of a total budgeted expenditure of $20 billion.

So our necessary and affordable investment in light rail is about much more than transport. It will revitalise Northbourne Avenue – the main entrance to our city. It will link up with the renewal we’re already seeing in Braddon and Dickson and Gungahlin’s lively town centre. It will create jobs and opportunities. It will also sit as a natural, pragmatic component of a wider whole – road and rail transport, innovation, thriving business, a diverse economy – all of which helps us continue to be a liveable, mature city.

As we enter our second century we are riding a new wave of Canberra pride. Now is the time to invest in building Canberra, a thriving Canberra that fits the pride we feel in it.

We are ready for more diverse transport options. We are ready for an entrance to the city that makes an impact worthy of a national capital and one of the world’s most liveable cities. There’s no doubt we are ready for more jobs. And we are ready to take our place as a major city on the world stage – our investment in building Canberra is necessary, appropriate and affordable.