*This story was first published by City Hub, which is part of the Alternative Media Group. Some material and links have been added plus an important update at the end. *
Like all industries, the roads industry holds corporate events to network and celebrate achievements. Normally roads lobby events are smooth affairs – talk, good food and a chance to chat about new public contracts that keep profits churning.
But this year, it’s become increasingly difficult for the lobby to hold its corporate events in peace. As hundreds of road engineers and builders, transport bureaucrats and corporate marketers headed into Sydney Town hall for their big Roads Australia awards night on May 4, they were met by a toll gate constructed especially for them by the WestConnex Action Group. As the protesters’ street theatre didn't entirely block the entrance, most predictably took the ‘rat run’ to avoid the toll which is precisely what many drivers are predicted to do if the 33 kilometre WestConnex motorway is constructed. Some even found themselves issued with $15,000,000 penalty notices for wasting public funds on the WestConnex project.
Some fazed interstate guests said they weren’t involved with WestConnex. Others were cynical, one telling City Hub‘s reporter that his company would take any contract whether the project was beneficial or not because the company’s survival depends on a flow of public funds. He probably spoke for many. Nevertheless it was not the celebratory atmosphere expected at the grand entrance of the year’s gala dinner.
This lighthearted protest by residents from St Peters, Newtown, Stanmore and Ashfield followed an earlier event when protesters interrupted a corporate lunch at which the WestConnex Delivery Authority (WDA) CEO Dennis Cliche addressed a similar crowd.
As reported by Fairfax Media, Mr Cliche who ran private Yarra Trams and the East Link toll road in Melbourne before he joined WDA spent part of his speech complaining about the ‘inequitable debate’, which was making it difficult to communicate the case for the WestConnex. He then proceeded to denigrate the movement against WestConnex, which includes residents in many parts of Sydney including Homebush, Beverly Hills, Concord and the inner west.
“The people who are making the most noise are those who already have the ability to jump in their car [and] drive wherever they want. They’ve got great public transport opportunities. They are a demographic that, generally speaking, is wealthier and there is this attitude of ‘I love my community don’t mess it up’,” Mr Cliche said.
“But they’re not living in the mortgage belt. They don’t have kids who are to some extent excluded socially from the opportunities that some people have,” he said.
“It’s not right for the people in an inner-city community to come in and enjoy their lifestyle and try and apply that to everybody else. And I think that’s exactly what we are seeing.”
A spokesperson for the WestConnex Action Group Pauline Lockie said her house will be compulsorily acquired by WDA if the toll road goes ahead.
She told City Hub yesterday that the “us-vs-them” tactics Mr Cliche and Duncan Gay used showed they were becoming desperate against WestConnex’s rising opposition.
“Transport and urban planning experts, progressive councils and well-informed members of the community, have long opposed WestConnex. Now we’re seeing business leaders such as Dr Tim Williams and the Committee for Sydney… joining the call for more transparency and a rethink – before it’s too late for our city,” she said.
Ms Lockie was among hundreds of resident activists, planners and students who attended a lecture by Dr Tim Williams, an honorary associate professor at Sydney University in late April. Dr Williams, also CEO of the business group the Committee for Sydney drew on his international UK transport experience to slam Sydney’s transport planning and call on the NSW Baird government to release the business case for big road projects.
His supported his case with a long research powerpoint that included examples of cities in the United States and elsewhere that were abandoning motorways in favour of public transport.
Dr Tim Williams: I Wouldn't Start From Here - Towards the transport revolution Sydney needs
During this presentation, Williams directly quoted from Cliche’s Roads Australia speech and described it as a “terrible way to have a civic dialogue about transport in our city… Trying to set one part of the community against another, trying to say that the inner west community is trying to stop the good people of western Sydney getting access to something,” Williams said.
He illustrated his point with this slide:
Mr Williams called for a more liveable Greater Sydney by developing fast public transport connections between centres and more walkable environments across the city. He argued that NSW transport planning has been dominated by the Roads and Maritime Services for too long and that public transport should be prioritised above motorways that have been abandoned by other major cities.
It’s been a bad two weeks for the WDA as the City of Sydney came out with its second independent report showing that if WestConnex goes ahead, traffic on the key alternative route Parramatta Road will be even worse in the future than now.
Despite the increasing expressions of concerns from community groups, councils professional and academic planners and business, the WDA is determinedly pressing ahead as fast as it can with two preliminary stages – the expansion of the existing M5 and interchange at Beverly Hills in Sydney’s south west and the M4 widening that will affect Homebush, Silverwater and Auburn. Residents in these areas have made submissions opposing the Westconnex but many others also remain unaware of works that could soon disrupt their lives in a major way.
The WDA is also moving forward in removing public park lands for construction works in Concord. Strathfield and Beverly Hills in further stages of the project. It holds information sessions, some of which are during business hours when most residents are at work, on minor aspects of the project.
Residents say that they find this frustrating because they cannot engage with the fundamentals of the project.
Note: After this story was published, the SMH reported that Tim Williams had apologised for his speech which he acknowledged had been only his own point of view not that of the Committee for Sydney. His speech was strongly supported by evidence as can be seen from his Powerpoint. None of this evidence has been refuted by the Board of the Committee who appear to have directed him to apologise presumably because their members include companies directly involved in Westconnex. This humiliating backdown tells us much about the power of the interests behind Westconnex and needs more investigation. In the author's view, there is no doubt that Williams is an expert on urban planning and renewal who had the interest of the public in mind when he developed his speech.