Perth light rail: getting on board

In November 2010, two seemingly unrelated events on opposite sides of the world set the stage for one of the most exciting developments to come to our city in many years.
In a remarkable turnaround, the International Energy Agency closed the forty year debate on Peak Oil with this startling prediction:

“Crude oil output reaches an undulating plateau of around 68-69 million barrels per day (mb/d) by 2020, but never regains its all time peak of 70 mb/d reached in 2006…”

At the same time, Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett has acknowledged the need for an electrified light rail network in Perth, within the next decade.

These two events fired the starting gun on what will be a fascinating and anxious race against time.  Consider what we’re up against.

Analysts are predicting 2011 may see world oil prices pushed back in the direction of the dark days of 2008, hitting household budgets hard. In Perth the metro price is nudging $1.40 per litre again; petrol in regional WA is already over $1.60 in some places . Our great city is one of the most car-dependent, low density settlements on earth, one of the reasons why suffocating peak hour traffic jams get a little worse every day. Traffic congestion ‘costs’ the country $10 billion a year  – billions of dollars in dead time, stuck in sweltering traffic.

We need a circuit breaker, a project that’s about more than infrastructure, something that transforms the way our city operates. In 1958 the last tram ran on the streets of Perth; 53 years later it’s time to bring them back.

Electric light rail powered with renewable energy will help us kick our fossil fuel habit, will boost community resilience and will prompt redevelopment of neglected corridors. It is a second tier mass transit system that will complement the existing heavy rail network, enhance bus services and support the necessary investment in a world-class cycling network.

We can not afford to drag this out for a decade. There are four things that must happen right away.

Firstly, the Public Transport Authority’s overdue 20 year plan should identify mass transit corridors, including those most suitable for light rail routes.

Secondly, we need a city-wide conversation about where such a system should go. Should light rail only serve the CBD and inner suburbs where public transport is already pretty good? Or should we see this as a project that links our whole 100km city together and reduces suburban petrol price vulnerability?

As the light rail debate progresses, let’s use it as an opportunity to talk not just about how we get from place to place, but how transport infrastructure can be used to bring life and vitality to our favourite places, whether they be our great universities or major urban centres like Rockingham, Gosnells and Joondalup. The best way to combine WA’s world class public transport planning expertise with peoples’ detailed knowledge of the own neighbourhoods and needs is with a deliberative process akin to the ‘Dialogue with the City’ which occurred in 2003.

Thirdly, the forthcoming state budget should include funding for a detailed feasibility study into light rail for metropolitan Perth. It should consolidate and refine the work done to date by the Australian Greens, the Knowledge Arc proponents, the Stirling Alliance and the Cities of Fremantle and Cockburn, and others. In unifying and consolidating the work already underway across the city, state planning authorities can play an essential role in preparing for the next step.

Finally, it is essential that WA makes a well considered funding submission to the Commonwealth Government for light rail within the next financial year. We have already missed two rounds of Commonwealth Infrastructure Australia funding. While rail projects are being funded in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria, WA has missed out because we have not had a project to put on the table. Budgets are tight and the Barnett Government must get light rail into the national infrastructure project pipeline now, not in a decade’s time.

To address our transport needs, we need to look forward, not backwards. The state government is currently considering upwards of $1.5 billion in urban freeway projects, in an age of climate change and peak oil. Instead of wasting the proceeds of the boom on outdated, 20th century infrastructure, we need to build the infrastructure for the future.

Until now, light rail advocacy has been a game of lines on maps: now we need line items in budgets.

It’s early days yet, but it’s exciting to see how the debate has shifted even in the last 12 months. It seems no longer a question of if a light rail network will be built in Perth, but when.

The Premier has fired the starting gun: the question is, what kind of race do we want to run?