Yesterday’s announcement by the new NSW Government of the creation of a new Integrated Transport Authority (ITA) not only fulfils a major election promise but also highlights the extent of the government’s transport ambitions.
The announcement also echoes many of the governance recommendations of the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) Independent Public Transport Inquiry. This called for a similar coordinating transport authority, though the government’s ITA will have a much bigger remit. There are other key differences, but let’s start with the similarities which are striking (and pleasing for those of us who worked on the SMH Inquiry).
The SMH Inquiry proposed a transport coordination authority managed by an independent board to plan and manage all aspects of Sydney’s public transport. Rail, bus and ferry operators would have been contracted on a contestable basis to provide services to the authority, which would have taken over and integrated their planning powers.
The SMH Inquiry report also proposed that the authority would prioritise customer service and the importance of providing each public transport user with a complete journey to meet their requirements rather than a set of disconnected bus, rail or ferry trips. This would have involved a branch dedicated to integrating all aspects of service provision including fares, ticketing, timetables, interchanges and information provision.
While the SMH proposal did not incorporate the management of car-based transport, the authority would have had a strong say in the approval of major new road projects.
The government’s ITA is very similar in that it will also integrate all aspects of public transport. It also emphasises customer service; there will be a division specifically dedicated to “Customer Experience”, which in the words of the Ministerial media release, “will make sure journeys are as simple and seamless as possible”.
There are other structural similarities, with divisions responsible for planning, services, projects and policies. The ITA will also take over planning powers from the individual transport agencies, much as the SMH Inquiry proposed, and use these resources to develop a comprehensive transport “masterplan”.
There are however some significant differences. These can be summarised as follows:
- The ITA will not be managed by an independent board, although an independent advisory board will be appointed by the government. The exact relationship of this to the ITA is unclear.
- The ITA will take over procurement, long-term planning and policy-making from the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) as well as from public transport agencies, thus giving it direct oversight of major road projects.
- The ITA will also manage freight transport and oversee transport across the State, not just in greater Sydney.
- However, it will not have the final say on major infrastructure projects, with the government intending to establish a state infrastructure body.
Despite these differences, the government’s new body is a huge step forward for transport planning and management in NSW. It is hard to disagree with the sentiment in the joint ministerial media release about the need to replace the current disconnected transport “silos” with a “streamlined agency which plans and delivers for all modes” and to concentrate on improving the transport user’s experience.
There is also compelling logic in integrating and extending the planning and management of transport statewide and to include road and freight transport as well as public transport. However, the government’s new approach is very ambitious and not without its risks:
- The first challenge for the new body will be getting on top of this enormous range of responsibilities and the associated expectations. While the primary reason for not including roads planning and transport management outside Sydney in the SMH Transport Inquiry recommendations was that these areas were outside its main terms of reference, there was also a desire to keep the proposed authority as lean as possible and focussed on Sydney’s public transport, which is a big enough challenge in its own right. The ITA has been handed a much more complex role and will need to be able to balance the competing demands of city and country, roads and public transport.
- Taking over planning powers from the current piecemeal collection of agencies and in particular the RTA will involve not just a short-term period of dislocation but also a long-term process of major cultural change, both within the agencies and at the political level as well. This will not be easy; for example, the attempted merger (by the previous state government) some years ago of infrastructure, transport and landuse planning had similar aims. However it began to unravel soon after the departure of the responsible Minister and was quietly dismantled shortly thereafter.
- Indeed, the Roads Minister has openly acknowledged the need to change the public perception of the “arrogance” of the RTA. Given the dominant role it has played in NSW infrastructure planning for decades and its success in getting motorway projects built, it will be fascinating to see if the RTA meekly accepts its new role of being just another transport provider.
- Having created a “mega-authority” with such far-reaching powers over all aspects of transport, it is understandable that the government has decided to separate the process of managing the state’s overall infrastructure program from transport planning. However, it will need to clarify the relationship between the two authorities and also how the additional funds required to meet the huge shortfall in public transport infrastructure will be provided.
Despite these concerns, the Government is to be congratulated on what is, in “Yes Minister” parlance, a “courageous” decision. Given the widespread public cynicism regarding previous public transport plans and announcements, it will need to be equally courageous in ensuring that the planning and prioritisation processes to be implemented by the authority are also credible and transparent and above all, that the resulting projects are funded and built.