Tunnel vision

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 October, 2005, 12:00am

It seemed like a sensible idea - dig a tunnel beneath central Sydney to relieve the traffic congestion clogging the city's streets. After years of planning and A$680 million ($3.98 billion) in construction costs, the Cross City Tunnel opened to great fanfare at the end of August. Having unveiled it, urban planners sat back in the confident expectation of streams of cars heading underground, a congestion-free central business district and the gratitude of the whole city.

But it has not quite worked out that way. The high tolls charged to use the road - A$3.50 for a one-way trip - have sparked outrage among Sydneysiders. They have steered away from the tunnel in droves. By now it was meant to be whisking 90,000 motorists a day from one side of the city centre to another; instead, just 20,000 a day are using it. The press has delighted in printing front-page photographs of the 'ghost tunnel', devoid of cars even during peak traffic time.

What has really riled Sydney drivers is the fact that all along the tunnel's path, alternative routes have been sealed off, funnelling them into the tunnel whether they like it or not.

Drivers who do not buy a special electronic tag in advance face a penalty half as much as the toll itself. There is a sense of coercion in the whole enterprise which is deeply resented.

'Like most people, if I am pushed into doing something I will do the opposite - it's human nature,' one angry commuter wrote to Sydney's Daily Telegraph, vowing to boycott the tunnel.

A columnist in The Sydney Morning Herald was succinct in his assessment: 'The Cross City Tunnel has been priced at a point the public will not pay, under conditions they will not accept, for reasons they will never believe.'

Locals are also incensed by revelations of cosy financial deals between the government of New South Wales and the tunnel's builders, a consortium that includes Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing. Those include a A$105-million cash payment made by the consortium to the state government in order to secure the bid to build the tunnel.

In return, the government gave generous assurances that the tunnel would provide a generous revenue flow. The government can be financially penalised, for instance, if it improves public transport to the extent that motorists are diverted away from the tunnel.

Even the minister in charge has admitted there is a crisis. The deal was 'more favourable' to the toll operators than to motorists, Roads Minister Joe Tripodi conceded this week. The cash flow to the tunnel consortium may be assured, but for now the traffic flow beneath Sydney's gridlocked streets has been reduced to a trickle.