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    The transience of infrastructure

    Deborah Singerman

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    Infrastructure Australia’s February Infrastructure Plan Infrastructure is another attempt to answer what type of Infrastructure do we need, where, how much and how to pay for it.

    Its 78 recommendations primarily target projects on urban congestion and national connectivity, followed by water security, sewerage infrastructure upgrades, flood mitigation and investment in remote infrastructure.

    Given predictions that the estimated cost of congestion will rise to $53 billion a year by 2031 without significant investment, not surprisingly there were public transport options, road and rail links, underground and over ground, commuter and freight as well as motorway upgrades and further stages.

    Both the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) and The Australian Construction Industry Forum (ACIF) welcomed the Plan and the need for objective decision-making based on cost-benefit analysis. “A long-term plan … will create more certainty for employers and the industry … (and) that will hopefully lessen political influence in providing the infrastructure that Australia most needs”, ACIF noted.

    However, with unresolved tensions, community angst and proposed property acquisitions over the WestConnex motorway, one of the plan’s “near term high proprieties”, for one, many of the projects are at the contentious end of the infrastructure spectrum.

    Yet how do we fund infrastructure when budget pressures will limit money allocated from taxpayers and the other major option, user-pays pricing, is politically unpopular. As Tim Colebatch, former economics editor of The Age forcefully argues in Inside Story, “Economists occasionally propose reforms to road pricing, but hardly anyone has been prepared to get up in public and say that public transport users should pay more for the benefits they receive.”

    Dealing with the commute also raises conflicting solutions. An international planning expert, Professor Peter Rees, warned against dispersing jobs to suburban centres like Parramatta saying it would create congestion and that it is best to leave people to “get a job, get a home nearby, get a better job somewhere else and they won't move [homes]”. However, this cuts across the need to reduce the CBD job load and the state government’s planning rhetoric of developing employment centres in Liverpool, Parramatta and Penrith and moving thousands of public servants out of the Sydney CBD.

    Having employment centres across Sydney recognises that there is already too much urban sprawl in Sydney to get all workers to and from the CBD every day, said Sydney Business Chamber executive Patricia Forsythe. "I think the bigger challenge is to make sure that we have public transport connections that stretch across Sydney, " she said.

    In early March a fast train link between Parramatta and the Sydney CBD was one of the options in a report, commissioned by Parramatta Council and the Sydney Business Chamber's western Sydney branch, for faster travel between the two locations. But again the report did not define the costs of the lines or who would pay for them.

    Darren Chester, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, and Andrew Taylor, the new Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister on Cities and Digital Transformation (“largely about government getting its own house in order”, take note.

    Meanwhile, as the Sydney Morning Herald reports that “a record number of homeless people are sleeping rough on inner Sydney streets” and property prices are squeezing more and more households, there is another forecast to consider.  Jobs will become more automated as we increasingly work alongside artificial devices and robotic devices within the next 20 years, according to a report, commissioned by the Federal Government in partnership with the Australian Computer Society, Boston Consulting Group and ANZ. Again, not surprisingly Minister for Employment, Senator Michaela Cash, said the technological change will create new jobs and opportunities – and perhaps reduce the need to commute.


    Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing, proofing and project managing consultancy specialising in the urban built environment and community.  @deborahsingerma

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