Buses versus Light Rail: Finally, a Real Transport Policy Debate in the ACT

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I lost faith in Action's bus service many years ago when the Gungahlin routes were changed, making my former suburb, Palmerston, a veritable public transport backwater. I am still confused as to how Capital Metro will solve the problems for those who do not live along the Gungahlin-Civic proposed light rail corridor, but now the Canberra Liberals have provided an alternative to the accepted wisdom of light rail.

The announcement by the Canberra Liberals is an important counter-point to ACT Labor's Capital Metro. Here, the proposal for major investment in light rail is brought into sharp relief by an alternative policy. This is what oppositions are supposed to do - provide alternative policies so that voters have some choice.

Kirsten Lawson's balanced comment in The Canberra Times on Thursday quite rightly questioned the Canberra Liberals' ability to detail individual bus routes:
The first thing that you wonder, though, is who are the Liberals in the realm of specialist transport planning? You can draw all the obvious lines you like on a map of Canberra, but shouldn't bus routes be devised by bus experts? If it is as simple as this, surely it would have been done already.
While I am not a fan of political parties getting too involved in the details of day-to-day management, given my experience of Action buses, it is high time that an alternative to an ongoing problem was proposed. Surely, if the bus experts had got it right then there would be less demand for a light rail service.

I am not opposed to light rail, but it is clear that land tax - as part of value capture from improved land values in the vicinity of Capital Metro - is the unspoken motivation for light rail's role in achieving high-density, "buzzing" urban-ness in the National Capital. Social engineering if you will.

Capital Metro, however, does not provide a clear solution for Canberra's transport problems. Indeed, I would argue that higher density living is something that policy-makers desire more than citizens.

So the Canberra Liberals' proposal seems to me to be doing what the "bus experts" were unable to do. The plan is simple but it makes sense. It is also cost-effective no matter how you look at it.

But Australia certainly needs to invest in infrastructure. Travel anywhere else and you will know that for a rich country, our infrastructure is cheap and nasty. But whether governments should be doing this is another matter. There is also the issue of sovereign risk should the existing contracts be torn up if a change of government occurs. While some suggest that sovereign risk is not an issue in Australia, global businesses do not necessarily agree.

Yet these are the types of policy debates that we need here in Australia. The detailed type of debate where politicians do the ground-work and present down-to-earth solutions to everyday problems. The proposal is so simple it might just work.

The NBN (nbn) is another of my pet issues, but the problem is not the technology. Despite all the policy focus on and investment in broadband, Australia's poor showing in the global rankings is a bigger problem than whether we use fibre or not. Nevertheless, the debate is stuck on which technology we should or should not be using.

The Canberra Liberals have picked up on a major policy issue: Action is not providing the necessary transport solutions needed by the Territory. Until this problem is addressed, Capital Metro will remain an expensive side-issue. 

But the alternative transport policies offered by the Labor Government and the Liberal Opposition provide real choices for voters at the coming ACT election. That can only be a good thing, regardless of how clever the "memes" might be.