The second Sydney airport – dead, or just resting? (part 3)

As with my previous posts, a disclaimer – I was the CEO of WSROC, the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, from 1996 to 2008 and therefore was involved in many of the debates about the proposed second Sydney airport.

I struggled to write the third part of this blog series on the resurrection of proposals for a second Sydney airport at Badgerys Creek mainly because – and let’s be honest –I have found it very difficult to make up my mind about the issue.

However it is certainly not going to go away, with a recently-released NSW Business Chamber report adding to the chorus of publications calling for the airport’s construction. So I have decided I can’t put it off any longer, even if my views are still not completely resolved.

But first a very brief reprise of my earlier posts.

In Part 1 I outlined the history of the project and how the mishandling of the airport issue and airport politics under both the Hawke/Keating and Howard Governments in the 1990s had eroded community confidence in the environmental assessment process and consequently support for the airport proposal. The key failures were, first, the projections regarding noise impacts for the third runway at Sydney Airport, completed in 1994, which subsequently turned out to be the wildly optimistic and, second, the quixotic decision by the Howard Government in 1996 to expand the update for the Badgerys Creek EIS to include consideration of no fewer than five runway options spread across both Badgerys Creek and federally-owned land at Holsworthy.

In Part 2 I summarised some of the arguments being advanced in favour of the proposed airport. The primary consideration has always been the growing demand for air travel which is outstripping capacity at Sydney Airport. However structural changes to the region’s economy combined with continued population growth have also added some urgency to the second key argument which is that a new airport would provide a substantial boost to job creation in Western Sydney.

I pointed out that the factors that had led to the region’s previously strong opposition to the airport have not gone away – including legitimate concerns regarding noise pollution, impacts on air and water quality and traffic congestion. If any airport is to proceed, these will have to be managed effectively. I also noted Prof. Phillip O’Neill’s conclusion that the proposed airport would make a substantial contribution to regional jobs growth only if it is integrated with the required infrastructure and an extensive network of distribution, logistics, convention and other facilities.

So my current and still not-fully-concluded views are based around the answers to a few key questions, two of which are discussed below:

Do we really need a second airport in Sydney?

This seems straight-forward but is actually several “sub-questions” rolled into one.

The first is whether the demand for medium and long-distance high-speed travel will continue to increase. The answer is clearly “yes”, despite our misgivings about our carbon footprints and use of scarce resources. While teleconferencing and high-speed communications networks will have some impact, people in business, government and other walks of life still want to meet face-to-face – and I don’t think we’ll ever accept virtual vacations over real ones.

The second sub-question is whether the current airport can deal with this increased demand. The answer appears to be “no”, at least in the medium term, unless it is worked much more intensively and/or expanded. Both options would have major impacts on one of the more densely populated parts of Sydney and are likely to politically unpalatable.

The third sub-question is whether alternative transport technologies can deal with this increased demand. The most obvious option is high speed rail (HSR). There is no question that a fully-developed east-coast HSR network would go a long way towards meeting the demand for interstate travel and could even help manage international demand by providing much faster access to other airports.

However there is a catch. To have any impact on current demand we should have started building such a network 20 years ago – and obviously we didn’t. With the best will in the world, doing it properly is going to cost a lot of money and will take a very long time – and given the current nature of Australian politics we don’t have the best will in the world. Any HSR network is very, very unlikely to be built before all spare capacity is used up at Mascot.

This doesn’t rule out HSR entirely – there is certainly a strong case for constructing the Canberra-Sydney-Newcastle link as the first stage of the full HSR network. This in turn could be integrated with rail links to the current airport and any future second airport, depending on its location. This first stage would also help to manage and to some extent ameliorate the growth in demand for air travel, though not to the extent required to act as an alternative for a second airport.  I’ll return to these issues in a later post.

OK, if we do have to have a second airport in Sydney, what is the best site?

So the choice of site becomes the key issue. Two alternatives to Badgerys have been canvassed – the Richmond RAAF base, mainly put forward as a stop-gap measure, and Wilton south of Sydney as longer-term option (see map). Essentially the question comes down to a choice between Badgerys Creek and Wilton, as Richmond is unlikely to be viable as a long-term site. So I’ll leave Richmond out of the mix for the moment.

Airport sites map

Map of Proposed Airport Sites

Again this question has sub-questions: first, which option has the greatest environmental impact and second, which option provides the greatest benefits in terms of economic development and jobs growth?

The first question involves consideration of a set of extremely complex issues so there isn’t a straightforward answer. To oversimplify greatly, if we look at those environmental factors relating to local ecological systems including the range of species present, the effects on water catchments etc, it appears that Wilton will have the bigger impact on the natural environment especially as it will involve more complex site works during construction.

On the other hand, if we look at other environmental factors such as noise and air quality which more directly affect humans, Badgerys is likely to have a bigger impact on the amenity of a much larger group of residents living nearby both directly and through the impacts of airport-related traffic on the region’s transport systems.

Look at the second question of economic development and employment and the picture changes again. Badgerys Creek starts with the advantage of being cheaper to construct, plus its greater proximity to urban areas – the cause of its potentially greater impact on the environmental amenity of residents in these areas – would also give (in theory at least) the most affected residents the best accessibility to a new airport. This means – again in theory – that they have a locational advantage as potential users and employees of any airport at Badgerys Creek ( I’ve extracted the one-page summary of the estimated benefits and impacts of the Badgerys Creek and Wilton proposals from last year’s Ernst & Young report for the Federal government here).

So we come to the core of the question: do the potential benefits for residents located within the footprint of any airport at Badgerys Creek and the wider Western Sydney community outweigh the environmental impacts both on the same group of residents and the wider community?

As with all airport questions there is no simple answer but I’ll try to outline my take on this and outline some of the consequences and related issues in my next post.

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One Response to The second Sydney airport – dead, or just resting? (part 3)

  1. Pingback: The second Sydney airport – dead, or just resting? (part 4: final) | StrategicMatters

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