Drought, fires and floods have not stopped one of the NSW State Government’s most malignant projects from trundling towards completion. Even a pandemic cannot halt the efforts of the venture, as underground drills grind through stone and silt less than 30 meters below homes, roads, and businesses across the Inner West.
The WestConnex project plans to unite Sydney’s Inner West with parts of western Sydney, plugging holes in the motorway and freight network, closing the loop of toll-free entry to the city’s CBD. Initially pegged as an eight-year project, with an estimate of a $15 billion cost, the project has overshot the budget by upwards of $3.2 billion and some construction projects are running nearly two years behind schedule.
On top of woes caused by delays, the ownership of the project continues to court controversy.
Most recently, the NSW State Government began negotiations into selling their share in the project, effectively privatising a further two of Sydney’s key motorways, the M4 and M5.
The project is currently co-owned by the NSW State Government with a 41% share, and the infrastructure giant Transurban, owning a 59% share. Transurban also partnered in the build of the M7 and M2 motorways, including the Lane Cove Tunnel, and takes a portion of toll fees under concessions until at least 2026, and through to 2048 for some projects.
What is WestConnex?
WestConnex is made up of six projects spanning across Sydney’s West and Southwestern suburbs: the widening of the M4, the New M4 tunnel, the King Georges Road Interchange upgrade, the New M5 tunnel, the M4-M5 Link Tunnels, and the Rozelle Interchange.
The projects centre around the expansion and link of the M4 and M5 motorways, with 33 kilometres of additional roads and tunnels built to join the two. The expansion of the M4 motorway bypasses Paramatta Road through tunnels between Homebush and Haberfield. The opening of the M4 tunnel initially lead to chaos on the roads, with cars scrambling to exit and avoid the new toll route, which is a costly $8.20 between Parramatta and Ashfield.
The M5 project begins in Beverley Hills, upgrading and connecting the roads between the M5 West and M5 East, which lead to the New M5 tunnels. The tunnels run below homes from Bexley to St Peters, through to the St Peters interchange near Canal Road and the Princes Highway.
The M5-M4 link tunnels are set to run under the southern end of King Street in Newtown, joining the ‘spaghetti intersection’ at the Rozelle Interchange at The Crescent, before joining with the M4 tunnels in Haberfield.
Currently the widening of the M4 and new M4 tunnels have been completed, along with the upgrade of the M5 at King Georges road. The New M5 project was initially set to be completed in January of 2020 but has been set back by a further 15 months for completion in mid-to-late 2021, while parts of the Rozelle interchange are still undergoing community and government consultation.
The human cost of WestConnex
The projects have received serious blowback from residents and council in the Inner West, to the point of launching a state parliamentary enquiry investigating the impact of the WestConnex project. The enquiry found that while the project is ‘a vital and long-overdue addition to the road infrastructure of NSW,’ there were significant issues surrounding transparency, funding and environmental impact.
Most notably for residents, the enquiry found that the consultation with community ‘has been ineffective and has lacked an empathetic approach,’ and that ‘it is unacceptable that members of the community feel it necessary to undertake air quality monitoring in lieu of the responsible government agencies.’ Two years after the findings were presented, some residents are still waiting for recommendations to be implemented.
Air Quality: an ongoing dilemma
The monitoring of air quality by residents began after the announcement that unfiltered ventilation stacks would be placed in key areas across the Inner West, close to homes, schools and parks. A map of the project areas reveals large ventilation facilities close by to the St Peter’s Primary School and Sydney Park and Haberfield Public School, as well as in Rozelle, Homebush and Kingsgrove near homes.
Concern about exhaust fumes drifting over homes, schools, and businesses lead to a number of recommendations in the parliamentary enquiry, including that ‘the NSW Government install, on all current and future motorway tunnels, filtration systems in order to reduce the level of pollutants emitted from ventilations stacks.’
However, an earlier report found that ‘emissions from well-designed road tunnels cause a negligible change to surrounding air quality,’ and the recommendation was scrapped. Instead, publishing real-time air-quality data through a central online platform was adopted, alongside the installation of ambient air quality monitoring stations in key areas across the Inner West.
The ventilation stacks still emit exhaust fumes and other pollutants high into the air, which will travel across areas of concern, but the hope is that with more energy-efficient cars, and better designed road tunnels, the effects on the community will be minimal when compared to the general air quality of the areas, many of which are located near some of Sydney’s busiest roads and highways.
Living above the path of progress
With tunnelling occurring 24/7 in some parts of the WestConnex project areas, residents directly above, or close-by to construction have lodged claims both formal and informal after their properties have begun to crack, shift or warp.
Many claims are ineligible due to homes being further than 50 meters away from a construction site, the formal ‘zone of influence’ defined by an engineering assessment conducted by the state government.
Those living within the zone were offered an opt-in pre- and post-construction survey to assess any damage to the property which may have been caused by the project. The non-compulsory nature of the assessments has led to residents missing their opportunity for a pre-construction assessment and affecting their chances of receiving compensation.
For residents outside the 50-meter zone, the effects are still real, but no promises have been made. Residents are encouraged to log and submit evidence of damage to WestConnex through a claim form on their website, but the enquiry found that most have had their claims denied.
Why invest in toll roads in 2020?
Put simply, it’s too late to stop. The 2018 enquiry found that ‘the NSW Government failed to adequately consider alternative options at the commencement of the WestConnex project,’ options that may have been toll-free, or provided alternative public transport solutions to congestion appear to have been left at the wayside or forgotten all together.
That ‘forgetfulness’ has continued to cause a headache for both state and local government, the latest stoush arising at Rozelle’s famed Tramsheds, which will be overshadowed by the upcoming Rozelle Interchange. It’s likely that the headaches, budget blowouts and community concern will continue, long past the anticipated completion date of 2023, leaving government, contractors and taxpayers asking the question; is WestConnex worth the cost?