Plans to build a tolled motorway linking the M1 Pacific Motorway at Wahroonga to the Hills M2 Motorway at West Pennant Hills were announced earlier this year.
The NSW Government, Transurban and the M7 Westlink Shareholders are the Project Sponsors of the motorway named “NorthConnex”. Their aim: to save Sydney commuters up to 15 minutes of travel time, but at what expense?
The government’s announcement on 16th of March 2014 commenced community consultation of the preferred scheme as part of the environmental assessment.
Advantages of NorthConnex are outlined in detail on its website (http://northconnex.com.au/). Running 9km, linking the M1 Pacific Motorway with the M2, the tunnel is expected to cut travel time by bypassing up to 21 traffic lights and taking 5,000 trucks per day off Pennant Hills Road.
The peak hour grind along Pennant Hills Road is a known nightmare to all commuters; the new motorway is expected to relieve congestion but surprisingly the gain to the individual commuter is anticipated to be only 15 minutes.
The proposed nine-kilometre tunnel will form part of the National Highway route, including interchanges to the north and south to accommodate connections at either end of the project. The tunnel will be built with a long-term capacity of three lanes, but will initially operate with twin motorways and a breakdown lane as a precaution in its early stages.
The NorthConnex’s maximum depth will be 90metres, much deeper than the Eastern Distributor (32 metres), the Cross City Tunnel (21 metres) and the Sydney Harbour tunnel (25 metres).
Perhaps the excessive depth is to answer for the price tag?
A projected value of $3billion – consisting of a construction budget of $2.65billion in addition to land and project delivery costs – is the anticipated price tag. The NSW and Australian Governments are contributing up to $405 million each, which means the rest of the costs will be funded through road tolls.
The question is, will the NorthConnex be worth the price over the long-term? If it is used mainly by truck-drivers, easing congestion on Pennant Hills Road how long is the payback period?
We used the Freight Metrics website (www.freightmetrics.com.au) to calculate the cost of running a truck. There are lots of variables including the size of the truck, the distance it drives each day, etc. but the cost to run a truck is roughly $90 per hour or $22.50 every fifteen minutes.
So, if I save $22.50 for 5,000 trucks, 365 days per year, I save approximately $41m per year. If I have to pay $2.650Bn for the tunnel my payback period is almost 65 years.
I know there are a host of other benefits, including thousands of cars saving time each day and reductions in traffic on Pennant Hills Road. There may even be an increase in value to local residential property, but by my very rough calculations, the numbers simply do not add up. The payback period seems to be far too long.
But there is another serious benefit. Between 2007 and 2012, the section of Pennant Hills Road north of the Hills M2 Motorway had a total of 1,005 crashes, with three fatal and 352 serious crashes. A smoothly running tunnel would reduce the likelihood of having a crash, particularly a serious or fatal crash. From an economic perspective this number of saved crashes is not much, but from a moral perspective, it might be worth the cost.
The project is currently in its environmental assessment stage which will ultimately result in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS will establish the potential environmental, economic and social impacts associated with the project and recommend measures to decrease any negative impacts.
From a residential perspective, it will be interesting to follow how NorthConnex will manage the Wahroonga Heritage Conservation Area which is right where the northern entrance to the tunnel is proposed. And there is an existing aboriginal land rights claim which abuts the entire length of the tunnel on its western flank. But I will leave that to brighter minds to contemplate.
All factors will be scrutinised throughout the next few months as, assuming that the project proceeds, formal approval is scheduled for September 2014. Construction will start in 2015 if it is found to be a beneficial addition to the NSW road network.
If all goes as planned, the NorthConnex is expected to be open to traffic in late 2019, which seems to be a long time to wait for the final project to be delivered. That opening relies on a thorough assessment of the price of production verses the communal benefits and long-time cost of the project.