City Hub

The dreamworld of WestConnex PR

A PR video was launched to promote Transurban’s WestConnex M8 tunnel, which opens soon, but their interchange at St Peters looks rather bleak. Photo: Wendy Bacon

By WENDY BACON

This week WestConnex launched what the Federal and NSW governments boasted was an “interactive, world-first online community event” to promote Transurban’s WestConnex M8, the tollway from Kingsgrove to St Peters that will open soon.

It’s an interactive video with lots of places where you can click to immerse yourself in the tollway and its surroundings. It’s a “one-stop shop to everything you need to know about WestConnex”, according to the NSW Minister for Transport Andrew Constance.

So, City Hub took a walk around St Peters Interchange that feeds into Campbell and Euston Roads at the northern end of the tunnel. We then took the video tour.

The first thing you notice is that there is nothing very new, let alone ‘world first’, about the video experience. It’s very similar to all the other videos that promoted WestConnex. Another video was released earlier this week for NorthConnex on Sydney’s North Shore. After long delays, it’s also due to open soon. Like WestConnex, NorthConnex is owned by Transurban, which has a near-monopoly on toll roads in Australia.

A Westworld life with loops
Readers who followed the WestConnex saga will remember the early promotional images of the St Peters interchange, in which the trees towered over the fly-over across the exchange. Those laughable images were met with derision on anti-WestConnex social media sites.

The WestConnex PR design team learned a lesson and now the trees in the video are shorter than the giant fly-overs, but still at best decades of growth away from replacing hundreds of trees that were removed.  In a slightly more realistic touch, some gravel can be glimpsed under the nine bridges that span the interchange, which is described in the video as an ‘engineering masterpiece’.

Accompanied by the confident, smooth voice of the narrator, the camera glides effortlessly across the top of Campbell Road. Those who are familiar with the neighbourhood will recognise a few of the buildings. The first thing you notice is that there are no people in the video and not many cars. The world of local choke points beyond the entrances to the tollway does not exist.

But standing at ground level on the corner of Princes Highway and Campbell street, it’s a very different experience. What used to be a fairly narrow road is now a characterless wide motorway that has carved up the suburb of St Peters.

If you don’t know what was there before, these widened roads look like any other bland concrete intersection. But those familiar with the area remember the families that were evicted from the small cottages that lined the road before they were crushed. Some of those residents moved to other communities that are fighting other tollways. Some will even remember how as children, they “reclaimed the street” with a confident occupation on a sunny afternoon in late 2014 and chanted ‘No WestConnex’.

The residents in the houses that survived the destruction are relieved that years of screeching night noise has nearly stopped. Their windows are now glazed to help block the noise of heavy trucks that will be encouraged to use this WestConnex exit. Newly planted grass and trees are beginning to grow. It’s anyone’s guess what the air quality will be like after the interchange and two nearby unfiltered stacks open but hopefully, it will not get worse. The real-time Westconnex monitor on this corner shows the air quality in this area has averaged more than 80% above the national standard for the dangerous fine particle pollutant PM 2.5 over the last year. PM 2.5 is linked to cancer and respiratory disease. Even before the bushfires that caused Sydney’s air quality to plummet, St Peters air quality was very poor by usual Sydney standards. During construction, it has been far more than ever predicted in any WestConnex Environment Impact Statement. Not surprisingly, such alarming facts are ignored in the interviews and quizzes that accompany the video.

Anne Picot who lives near the road has lodged hundreds of complaints, written many submissions and attended scores of protests since her community was hit by WestConnex. She was not impressed when she received a letter from Westconnex in her letterbox this week. It was a message from the communications team, thanking her for her patience during construction and inviting her for a ‘sneak-peak’ inside four tunnels and to ‘meet the team’ through the interactive video. WestConnex’s corporate PR seemed to her like a final insult that fails to compensate for “night work noise and lights for three nights in a row, flooding of paths and roads, including ones that were supposed to be fixed, dust, dust and more dust”. She watched while an elderly neighbour was forcibly evicted from his home and dragged into a paddy wagon by the NSW riot squad. Like everyone else in St Peters, she experienced a nauseating stench from the interchange site for more than three months. After hundreds of complaints, contractors CPB finally pleaded guilty for causing harm to residents and was fined by the NSW government. In the last year, Westconnex has finally offered more noise cancellation headphone and occasional ‘alternative accommodation’ to the most affected residents.

Back in the dreamworld of the video, we glide across the Princes Highway and past Crown Street, a small street near Sydney Park where tunnelling for the M4/M5 still wakes the residents, some of whose houses are cracking right now. Battles for compensation are still down the track. These homes lie in the buffer zone of two unfiltered black stacks which again are not highlighted in the video.

Further down Campbell Road, the camera tracks past an isolated row of surviving terraces that face the desolate gravel hills of the interchange. Tiny trees and grass are beginning to grow. On the other side of the interchange, thousands of new high rise apartments face a maze of flyover and motorways. Although never depicted in WestConnex’s earlier images, they dominate the landscape now. Hopefully, the view will soften as the years go by.

The video features new cycleways that provide a safer option than riding on congested roads, but one wonders about the health risks of developing walking and bike tracks that hug major roadways.

At the point where Campbell Road meets Euston Road, there was a camp where protesters lived in the Summer of 2016 until the acrid smells of demolition dust drove them to the other end of Sydney Park. This is the site that environmentalists from other battles all over Sydney visited to join a valiant fight to protect the edges of Sydney Park. Now land on which the campsite sat has been cut away and turned into part of the road on the widened corner. Soon it will seem like it has always been this way. The rest of Sydney Park is blossoming. But hundreds remember those traumatic days when the tall eucalypts and rows of magnificent paperbark trees that bordered Sydney Park have ripped apart until they toppled slowly to the ground. As the tree choppers worked, they were defended from protestors by scores of NSW police paid by WestConnex. The blue ribbons that campaigners tied around each tree marked for destruction lay scattered across the ground for months.

Newtown resident Jacqui Sykes later exhibited a beautiful book made out of paperbark remnants. She collected thousands of signatures of residents and visitors from all over Sydney on a petition against WestConnex on weekend stalls in King Street, Newtown.  Right now, the Westconnex M4/M5 team are tunnelling under the very old terraces in her street. This week she watched the video and called it an “extraordinary piece of fluff.  As you go along the new roads that have hardly any traffic, often at 60 kph when I thought it was all about going faster, you have no idea where you actually are. You also have no idea where the toll collection poi Wents are and when I tested the tolling information, there was no information on the new M8. ” Sykes found the video frustrating and turned it off.

The video enthusiastically promotes its M8 public art which may indeed be pleasant. It even features some old materials from demolition sites.  But corporate art however attractive works to bury the memories contained in the films, photos and other artworks that bear witness to the community struggle to stop the tollways. ( For example, Lorrie Graham’s powerful photojournalism)

M8, you’re late mate
The M8 was originally supposed to open last year. It’s now meant to open in a few weeks. But City Hub noticed that WestConnex stated in an answer to a website visitor’s question that it could be ‘months.’ Either way, it is clear that the CPB workers won’t be gone from the site for many months and work on the M4/M5 will continue for years.

There has been no news about the dispute over the cost overruns on the M8 but it’s unlikely to have been a money-spinner for CPB contractors. Long before it was finished the majority of WestConnex was sold to Transurban. In Melbourne, a dispute between CPB and Transurban has brought the Westgate tunnel to a halt. Despite its poor environmental record on the M8, the NSW Roads and Maritime Services contracted CPB to build another engineering ‘marvel, the three-level underground Rozelle Interchange. There was little if any competition for the tender. Westconnex has already having the same devastating impact on Rozelle and Annandale as it had on Haberfield, Concord and St Peters.

In the real world of cashflow, Transurban has suffered a serious hit to its traffic volumes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, Transurban said this week that when Rozelle is finished, it would like to build the Western Harbour Tunnel. This risks environmental damage to Sydney Harbour and more carved up suburbs and loss of trees and parkland on the Northshore.

There is no doubt that those who can afford the M8 tolls will get a quicker trip. WestConnex does not expect the traffic to increase overall but to split between the Old M5 tunnel which will be tolled for the first time, the new M8 tunnel and local roads that were predicted in the EIS to carry more traffic. These local roads are outside the video’s ‘360 degrees’ field of vision.

Motorists are now beginning to understand that they will soon be expected to pay a toll on the M5 tunnel that has been free for years. NSW Labor is calling for a ‘toll holiday’ but the Minister for Transport Constance is holding firm.

Could it be that with falling toll revenues in Sydney, Melbourne and especially the United States, Transurban is anxious about the future traffic flows on its motorways? This week, CEO Scott Charlton said that the company accepted that more people may work from home but is banking on a rosy future with the growth of the delivery business.

Despite the confident sales pitch, is Transurban anxious about the launch of M8? Is the hype around the video a sign of desperation as well as an attempt to stamp its sanitised view on the public’s attitude to the project.

A similar video used to promote the M4 East tollway opening in 2018 also ignored the local roads. Now Transurban is already pushing for local traffic to be steered in directions that will the flow of cars and trucks into its tunnel as smooth as possible. Recently thousands of residents have been writing submissions to Minister for Transport Andrew Constance complaining that they are being trapped in their suburbs by traffic.

Corporate propaganda for schools

Faced with massive community opposition along its route and only a lukewarm response from truck drivers and longer distance peak hour commuters that were supposed to welcome the motorway despite the tolls, Westconnex invested a lot of its public relations efforts. As well as mini tollway games for toddlers whose parents who attended its information nights, there has been a steady stream of activities and grants for schools and community and sporting groups.

Now this latest interactive video features “education for children and school students” with games and activities. If you are one of the first 1000 visitors, you can request a free activity pack.

We can only hope teachers will also point to taction group websites, Facebook sites, documentaries and the eloquent evidence given to the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into impacts of Westconnex.

The Inquiry received a huge amount of evidence that the health of residents living near WestConnex M4 East and New M5 projects had been damaged by unacceptable noise, dust and stress. It found that complaints procedures repeatedly left communities feeling that they were treated with contempt. The committee acknowledged the “severe and multiple health impacts” including “constant noise and pollution from construction and endless night works have led to mental health issues for residents as well as disrupting daily life which has had profound consequences.”

There was also independent expert evidence that Westconnex’s environmental impact statement was deeply flawed and the project will not solve Sydney’s traffic congestion.  But Gladys Berejiklian’s NSW government ignored the inquiry’s findings.

So long as they are encouraged to explore for themselves, students will be able to test Transurban’s corporate propaganda against the history of the M8’s construction as well as the real-world experiences of using the tunnel as a transport solution or living near a WestConnex portal.  Hopefully, they will be encouraged to look beyond corporate propaganda and make up their own minds.

It did occur to City Hub’s reporter, who is a retired teacher of media, that this Westconnex M8 video would make an excellent starting point for a critical textual analysis for school or university students. But then I wondered if the latest plans for NSW schools and university education proceed will critical analysis of promotional videos such as Transurban’s latest effort even be ‘a thing’?

Wendy Bacon was previously the Professor of Journalism at UTS and was part of the campaign to stop Westconnex. Follow the Westconnex Action Group website or facebook site. You can read more City Hub stories about WestConnex here. Here is the link to the Westconnex video. 

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