Sydney protest groups line up against road and rail projects

Protest“That was a bloody stupid idea,” says Kristina Keneally, the former NSW premier.

In 2010, Keneally cancelled the construction of the CBD Metro line to Rozelle. The decision came at a cost of some $400 million and was one of the most dramatic reversals of policy in recent times.

“The community opposition to the CBD Metro was spot on because the community could see what everyone else could see – there were no viable or credible transport reasons to build that piece of infrastructure,” Keneally says of a project that started life under her predecessor, Nathan Rees.

One acronym at a time – CAPS, SCAPS, NOW or STORC – they are the people trying to change the face, or resist changes to the face, of Sydney.

When the Baird government attempts re-election in March, it will point to an array of road and rail projects initiated in the past three years.

The projects have their fans. But every time the government wants to replace a bridge, dig a road tunnel or lay a rail track through the city, it risks raising the ire of residents convinced the ministers and their bureaucrats have things all wrong.

The residents have sometimes had a point.

“That was a bloody stupid idea,” says Kristina Keneally, the former NSW premier.

In 2010, Keneally cancelled the construction of the CBD Metro line to Rozelle. The decision came at a cost of some $400 million and was one of the most dramatic reversals of policy in recent times.

“The community opposition to the CBD Metro was spot on because the community could see what everyone else could see – there were no viable or credible transport reasons to build that piece of infrastructure,” Keneally says of a project that started life under her predecessor, Nathan Rees.

The current spread of opposition groups has mixed goals. Some want to block projects altogether. Others are pushing for modifications.

“What’s the goal? No WestConnex in its current form,” says Chris Elenor, the convener of WestCon Action Groups.

In the past week, members of the various chapters of groups opposed to the proposed 33-kilometre inner west motorway have been trying to prevent preliminary drilling for the tunnels by parking over drill sites.

“We just think it’s an absolute waste of taxpayers’ money,” says Elenor, who is pushing a public transport alternative.

“I recognise that that section of Parramatta Road between Concord and Ashfield is an absolute basketcase and should have been fixed years ago, but we don’t think a tunnel is a solution.”

Not all the groups want to stop the projects they are protesting.

In the northern suburbs, Community Against Polluting Stacks (CAPS) and Southern Community Against Polluting Stacks (SCAPS) both support the general idea of NorthConnex motorway tunnels under Pennant Hills Road.

But they want changes at either end.

CAPS wants the proposed tunnels extended to the north, to move an emissions stack at Wahroonga further from residential properties.

SCAPS wants changes to an emission stack near Pennant Hills. It also wants ventilation systems in the stacks.

In the view of Keneally, also a former planning minister, organisations attempting to change and not block projects are more likely to get a hearing.

“The community organisations that just argue a flat ‘no’ – we oppose the M2, we oppose the South West Rail Link, we oppose the interchange at Chatswood –just a flat ‘no’ is a sure sign of NIMBYism and of selfishness,” says Keneally, citing the maligned “not in my backyard” phenomenon.

“It’s the organisations that say ‘I understand something needs to get built, let’s work together on it to make it a better project’ – that’s when you get a minister’s attention.”

But neither SCAPS nor CAPS, nor a separate group set up to prosecute concerns about the health impact of underground tunnels, called Drs Against Pollution, have yet had any success.

“We have been disappointed with the Liberal Party’s willingness to engage on this issue,” says CAPS organiser Elizabeth Johnson, who was left particularly disappointed after a meeting with Roads Minister Duncan Gay.

Corinne Fisher is a convener of the Better Planning Network, which has found resonance pushing for changes to planning laws. She said superficial government consultation processes could be blamed for the emergence of many of the activist groups.

“They know they are being managed, they feel they are being fed information that is not transparent, not logical, and they just don’t know what else to do,” says Fisher.

In Windsor in far-west Sydney, locals opposed to the destruction of the historic Windsor Bridge have maintained a 24-hour presence for more than 500 days at the bridge site.

The vigilance has had some success. The bridge remains, despite planning approval for its destruction being issued last year, and the Community Action For Windsor Bridge (CAWB) group say they will fight on.

“I’m a financial planner, we’ve some retired people, a couple of solicitors, some teachers,” says Dail Miller from CAWB.

“These are ordinary community members,” he says. “We’re not hippies, or whatever you want to call people who populate protests.”

In inner and eastern Sydney, several groups emerged after Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian announced a light rail line to Kingsford and Randwick through the city and Surry Hills.

According to the convener of People United Surry Hills (PUSH), Venietta Slama-Powell, these groups initially wanted to work with the government on changes to the route. But they now want the line stopped.

“We are about to demonstrate this growing tide of frustration and anxiousness about this project,” says Slama-Powell, who is organising a march along the light rail route in the lead-up to the election.

“If people say its NIMBY, we say ‘great, let’s have more of it’,” she says.

For their part, Berejiklian and Gay say they are willing to keep consulting. But neither seem too keen to budge.

“I’m happy to work with people who have the best interests of Sydney at heart but I won’t waste time with those who avert job and wealth creation by threatening the delivery of nation-building projects,” Gay said in an email.

 

 

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