Fitting the light rail vision to a city’s reality

IN the words of Transport and Infrastructure Minister Andrew Constance, the state government is “cracking on” with its plan to use light rail as the centrepiece of its plan to transform Newcastle’s central business district.

It’s a visionthat the Newcastle Herald has endorsed – albeitwith some reservations–since it was first announced by Mike Baird, back when he was treasurer in a Coalition government led by then-premier Barry O’Farrell.

These reservations –natural enough given the scale of the project, and the politics that have swirled around it and the city in recent years –were given short shrift on Tuesday by Mr Constance, who urged people to “stop being so negative”.

That’s fine for Mr Constance to say, and it’s a minister’s job to promote his government’s policies.But the longer the light rail has been in the planning, the greater the opportunity there has been for people to think more closelyabout its implications, and about whether the government’s prescription is the right answerfor a peninsular city witha much lower population density that is usually the case for places served bylight rail.

More information aboutthe operational side of the Newcastle system willbe available on Thursday, when the government releases itsReview of Environmental Factors. But MrConstance made it clear that this reportwould notcover a lot of associated but important information, such as how the light rail fits into the broader landscape of urban renewal. Nor has the government seen fit to release a business case for light rail, a decision that has only encouraged the doubts of those who fear the project risks becoming an expensive white elephant.

That said, it is worth remembering that light rail has been successfully introduced into various medium-sized cities around the developed world, often against substantial initial opposition. As faras the Herald can tell, this early opposition has tended to fade away, with the travelling public embracing the new mode of transport, and the cities in general enjoying the consequentialurban renewal.

Mr Constance is promising ample consultation in the months ahead, but he also made it clear that the decision to install light rail has been made once and for all, and will not be revisited. Given the cost, and what’s at stake, this is one decision the state government must absolutely get right.

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