NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian during Question Time in the NSW Legislative Assembly on Tuesday. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian during Question Time in the NSW Legislative Assembly on Tuesday. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Light rail will derail Premier Pollyanna

How the luckiest Premier in the wealthiest state in Australia managed to drive her government into a losing position against a lacklustre opposition is a salutary tale for politicians who are more abacus than acumen.

Gladys Berejiklian has endured five days of bad headlines because she couldn't find a way to help her Treasurer Dom Perrottet sort out his work-life balance.

The Perrottet stoush, the Wagga Wagga by-election rout, and the Ferry McFerry Face fiasco are just symptoms of the "end of days" mood that envelops this government.

If you're looking for reasons the Berejiklian government is neck and neck with Labor in the polls six months out from the state election, and why Luke Foley is preferred premier, look no further than George Street.

The light rail catastrophe is emblematic of the Premier's Pollyanna approach.

No one wanted trams back in Sydney except Gladys, then the transport minister, and Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

Gladys Berejiklian, pictured in the NSW Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, ignored reports sceptical about the success of a light rail project, but pushed ahead regardless. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Gladys Berejiklian, pictured in the NSW Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, ignored reports sceptical about the success of a light rail project, but pushed ahead regardless. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

In 2012, Gladys and then Premier Barry O'Farrell ignored every naysayer around the cabinet table, including then-Roads Minister Duncan Gay whose department was warning that light rail would make congestion in the CBD 35 per cent worse.

This was a nightmare we walked into with our eyes wide shut.

Every expert said it was stupid. The business case was woeful. It would increase congestion. It would cost a fortune. George Street was too narrow.

And yet Gladys forged ahead.

The project was opposed from the start by Infrastructure NSW, then headed by former Premier Nick Greiner.

In 2012 an Infrastructure NSW report slammed light rail as "significantly more expensive than bus services, no material speed benefits, less flexible in traffic and … does not offer significantly greater capacity."

Existing bus passengers would be worse off because they will "be required to interchange or walk a longer distance."

And it warned the narrowness of George Street means "a high capacity light rail service is fundamentally incompatible with a high-quality pedestrian boulevard."

The truth is light rail was always just a boutique adornment to the city, a vanity project, not the solution promised for harried commuters.

The report accurately predicted that the project would damage businesses along the route, "cause substantial disruption for several years" and the need to move water electricity and telecommunications utilities underneath George Street "could impose significant costs and delays."

Ain't that the truth.

In 2013, a business case review by Evans & Peck also predicted cost blowouts and delays because of the difficulty of replacing utilities.

And now Spanish subcontractor Acciona is suing the government for $1.2bn, claiming it was misled about the amount of work needed to replace those utilities.

The Infrastructure NSW report is so prescient as to break your heart.

"As other cities have learned to their cost, an ill-considered light rail plan can lead to years of disruption and financial disaster", it says.

It cites light rail debacles in Jerusalem - nine years and a doubling of costs - and Edinburgh. Originally planned as three lines covering most of the city, it ended up being half a line, six years overdue, at triple the cost.

There were so many warnings.

Gladys Berejiklian, Andrew Constance and Bruce Notley Smith take a test ride on a the light rail at Randwick.
Gladys Berejiklian, Andrew Constance and Bruce Notley Smith take a test ride on a the light rail at Randwick.

Another 2012 report for Transport for NSW found the cost of building and operating the line would exceed the value to taxpayers.

A damning 2013 analysis by the federal body Infrastructure Australia said the light rail would not save travel time for commuters and questioned whether it would be value for money.

The NSW Auditor-General in 2016 found "incorrect estimates… mispricings and omissions" had led to cost blowouts, and this year she told a parliamentary inquiry that blowouts and delays were because the government failed to conduct a proper "preliminary business case to ensure that NSW had value for money for the project".

And then there is the curious fact that the Spanish subcontractor Acciona was a client of the Premier's mentor, moderate faction powerbroker and lobbyist Michael Photios.

The heartbreaking irony is that the very businesses along the route which have gone broke provided the seed money for the project, with their rates paying for a $220 million initial grant from the Lord Mayor.

The cost of the light rail project already has blown out by $500 million and no one believes that's the end of it. It was supposed to be completed before the state election next March. It is unlikely to be finished before 2020.

Gladys was warned at every step of the project that it wouldn't work.

Yet despite every sage warning, every precisely prescient report, she remained resolutely, unreasonably, illogically optimistic, the very definition of a Pollyanna.

The term comes from the heroine of Eleanor Porter's 1913 children's classic novel, Pollyanna.

She was an orphan living a bleak existence with a mean aunt, but she found reasons to be cheerfully, annoyingly optimistic about every setback.

It was a nice pre-war fiction but it's no way to run a state.

@mirandadevine