An artist’s impression of the Commonwealth Park stop. It will have grass tracks. Image: ACT Government.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr has urged the Commonwealth to speed up the approvals process for major infrastructure projects such as light rail stage 2 by reforming its environmental legislation and hiring more staff to assess applications.
Mr Barr made his comments when announcing that the ACT Government had moved to the next stage of the approvals process for light rail stage 2A to Commonwealth Park by responding to the Preliminary Documentation requirements under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
The public now has until 14 September to comment on the documents.
The government still hopes that construction on stage 2A can begin next year and that the approvals for the more complex stage 2B can be completed in the next 18 months, but it won’t be releasing the 2A cost or signing any contracts before the election.
Mr Barr said the both the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, in line with Reserve Bank advice, were urging states and territories to borrow for major infrastructure projects but the ACT’s experience of having to deal with up to four levels of approval for light rail was a case study of the problems of getting projects off the ground.
He singled out the EPBC process, which has been under review, as ripe for change.
”The timeframes associated with moving a large piece of infrastructure through this legislation can indeed be a frustration for proponents, which is something we have experienced in recent months and years,” Mr Barr said.
He said the relevant Commonwealth agencies, such as the National Capital Authority, also needed more staff to ”process and work through the important detail, of not just this project but countless others around the nation”.
Moving ahead: Transport Minister Chris Steel and Chief Minister Andrew Barr at the corner of Edinburgh Avenue and London Circuit in New Acton near where light rail will run. Photo: Ian Bushnell
Mr Barr said he wasn’t suggesting that there should not be due diligence, particularly in the Parliamentary Triangle where there are serious heritage matters, but that things were taking too long.
He said that the ACT had put to the Commonwealth that only two levels of approval were needed – the NCA and the ACT’s own planning processes.
”There could be a way of streamlining this process in terms of the number of agencies with fingers in the pie,” Mr Barr said. ”That’s a sensible reform that needs to be talked about.”
Mr Barr also flagged further infrastructure announcements in the economic and fiscal update in two weeks, in a clear pitch to voters that Labor was the party of progress and getting things done.
Transport Minister Chris Steel said the government’s 2A response reveals that the wireless, 1.7 km extension to Commonwealth Park now won’t require an electricity sub-station to be built and that the Commonwealth Avenue section will have grass tracks.
There will also be a range of traffic changes including no right turn movements on to London Circuit to enable a right of way for light rail to proceed efficiently through the corridor.
The extension of Edinburgh Avenue to Vernon Circle was also nearly complete and will provide another way to move through the city both during the construction of Stage 2 but also afterwards, Mr Steel said.
The main environmental concern involves Golden Sun Moth habitat, which will be dealt with through offsets and research project.
The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) has welcomed the release of the preliminary EPBC documentation for the City to Commonwealth Park light rail extension, saying it was an important milestone in the journey towards bringing the network south to Woden, then onwards to Tuggeranong.
“We commend the ACT Government for their careful consideration of the broader environmental and heritage impacts of bringing light rail through Canberra’s city centre,” said PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley.
“This is evident in the adoption of wire-free technology and grassed tracks along Commonwealth Avenue, which significantly reduces the route’s visual impact and preserves the important Parliament House heritage vista.”
Mr Hemsley said he looked forward to the awarding of contracts and commencement of works between the City and Commonwealth Park.
“By extending Canberra’s light rail network, we can deliver a much-needed shot in the arm for Canberra’s construction industry, with the double benefit of providing improved public transport options in the longer term.”