Get on track

Former Light Rail project Director from Portland, Oregon Jeff Goodling took to Fremantle Town Hall stage with Mayor Brad Pettitt on Thursday to pose the question ‘Are Light Rail examples from Portland Oregon relevant for Fremantle Western Australia?’  Jeff had the calm and confidence of someone who had travelled the journey and had become wise, while Brad had the enthusiasm of someone passionate about being only a short way into an important journey.

Well it seems that Portland and Fremantle have a lot in common, including that we are both wild west towns settled around the same time, with a similar sized populations.  Until the era of light rail Portland was a typical American car orientated city, now it stands out from the crowed.  Jeff explained that being green is not expensive nor unpopular, Portland now has a steady influx of 25 to 44 year olds who like the vibe created by the transit city, whilst surveys show residents save $6,200 a year in travel expenses over residents in an average American city of similar size.  $6,200 to spend on thing that enhance their lives and the economy of the city.

Jeff talked of the initial impetus being hard to achieve, there was widespread community and government resistance to the first line going in.  Today when the sixth line was recently added people were falling over themselves to lobby for it to go through their area.

Unfortunately WA is many years behind Portland, we are still in the difficult first stage, looking at possible routes.  The general direction from Fremantle to the growth area to the south and from Fremantle to Murdoch activity centre are well supported, but the fine detail of how to get through Fremantle is still contentious.  Ultimately engineering constraints will determine those options.

The way governance in Australia works is that Local Government (Councils) are an interface or buffer between the community and State Government.  The way Local Government can get the attention of State Government for major projects is for them to scope the idea and importantly to have broadcasted community support.  Only then will the State government take an interest, with possible flow on to Infrastructure Australia funding.  Fremantle Council has put a lot of time and effort into the scoping of light rail for the area, but as of yet does not have the necessary broad-based community momentum.  It’s not going to happen is a frequent response I hear, well without a strong impetus from the community this is probably true.  The same is true for a Fremantle Wind Farm, but look out for an upcoming post on that.

Back to light rail, it is recognised that any rail system has huge advantages over busses for transit.  First and foremost investors will not make commitments to an area because a bus stop is located there, they will if a rail station (heavy or light) is, this is part of the value capture of light rail.  Property along its route has an instant one-off increase in value.  Check out the Gold Coast Goldlinq project, which has joint funding from government and the private sector, some who wish to operate the service, but importantly also some who wish to capitalise on the increased land value along its route.  For doubters of the value of investment in rail try to remember the media criticism of the Perth to Mandurah line.  However this line has performed better than the most enthusiastic predictions, now it is sometimes hard to get onto a train resulting in the State Government urgently buying more rolling stock to cope with demand.  If you get frustrated at cues on the freeway now, imagine what those cues would be like if the close to 2 million passengers who used the train in May went back to driving a car?

The Portland story is one of success and leadership, they are not alone, many cities are constructing light rail or trams, Sheffield in the UK has just opened theirs, Istanbul put one through the heritage centre of the city, just put new tram systems in a search engine as I have and get pages of results from Kazakhstan to Denmark.  WA is in the middle of a mining boom, a boom that will not go on forever, we have a responsibility to invest some of the money from this boom in our states future.  Infrastructure projects will repay their investment many times over and repay it in less affluent times.

If you want to live in a resilient city that’s makes investments for its future and future generations then support light rail, and be vocal about that support.

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