In our booming cities, one construction project rolls into the next and those living through them are left asking: will we ever get ahead?
It’s lunchtime. City workers — most with headphones firmly secured — zigzag around each other, searching for food or somewhere to sit.
The streets are buzzing, but the usual drone of traffic and city sound is drowned out. Something else has taken over: the relentless ra-ta-ta-ta-ta of an industrial drill.
Banging a hole under the watchful eye of hi-vis-clad construction workers, the drill is so loud it drowns out the beeps telling the city’s pedestrians it’s safe to cross the road.
Yet for 82-year-old Moses Srour, the noise is irrelevant.
“I’m half deaf,” he told the ABC. “I only hear what I want to hear.”
The shoe repairman’s hearing may be failing, but his vision is just fine.
And he’s seen it all.
Gaping holes where buildings once loomed above him.
Barriers where he used to walk.
And new buildings emerging where there were none before.
“Of course it’s changed,” Mr Srour told the ABC. “That’s what happens in the city.”
In Sydney’s CBD, where Mr Srour’s business is based, change has been the only constant.
He’s experienced it — and the disruption it brings — himself.
His shoe repair and key-cutting business, which has been operating for 64 years, was forced to relocate because of that incessant drill — the one helping build Sydney’s new train station as part of the $16.8 billion Metro line, Australia’s largest public transport infrastructure project.
A huge chunk of Sydney’s famous Martin Place, where Mr Srour’s shop used to be, has been dug out for the project, which last week was hit with an almost $3 billion cost blowout.
In posters plastered across the site, the NSW Government proudly asserts it will make “Tomorrow’s Sydney”.
But what about the cities of today? Experts say when it comes to construction projects, Australia will always be “chasing a ball down a hill”.
Across the country, our capital cities are in the middle of an unprecedented infrastructure spend.
In Melbourne, the $11 billion Metro Tunnel project is flagged to wrap up by 2025, while the $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel project — which was originally due for completion in 2022 — will come in 2023.
Perth’s Metronet train line project will transform the city, but has also suffered delays and controversies. Meantime, the Cross River Rail, an underground railway through central Brisbane, is set to cost $5.4 billion with a 2024 finish date.
In Sydney, the ongoing $17 billon WestConnex project — billed as the biggest road project in the world — is still four years away from completion.
“Our main cities, our metropolises, have been going through major surgery,” University of Melbourne urban policy professor Brendan Gleeson said.
“Particularly in the past decade, there’s been unprecedented growth, both in population and the built environment.
“But state governments across the nation recognise there’s been a severe infrastructure lag.”
Today, independent advisory body Infrastructure Australia will launch its 2020 Infrastructure Priority List at Parliament House in Canberra.
The list is produced every year, and aims to address Australia’s “unprecedented infrastructure demand” by advising governments across the country which types of projects they should be focusing on.
Under this year’s theme of “resilience”, it identified 25 new projects, including four country-wide “high-priority projects” focusing on roads, water security, waste management and coastal protection.
These recommendations though are often ignored and experts have long criticised governments of pork-barrelling, lacking foresight and using infrastructure investment as a fall-back option to stimulate the economy.
Playing catch up
The population debate, and its impact on the country’s infrastructure needs, remains a political football.
In NSW, Premier Gladys Berejiklian recently called for a breather on immigration, while the Prime Minister Scott Morrison introduced legislation encouraging skilled migrants to live and work in country towns in a bid to ease congestion.
Australian National University demographer Liz Allen said investment in the physical infrastructure of Australia’s major cities had been “financially and strategically inadequate for the last two decades at least”.
She said Australia did not need to take a breath on population growth from immigration, but instead leaders needed to “get a grip”.
“We don’t have cities and people spring up overnight,” Dr Allen said.
“The trouble for Australia, and its major cities, has been that political short-termism has prevented investments in major infrastructure because they extend beyond a couple of years.”
Now, it seems, we’re attempting to catch up.
Marcus Spiller, an economist and urban planning expert for SGS Economics and Planning, has worked as an independent consultant for governments and private companies for 30 years.
He said before any major project was approved, it required a “cost-benefit analysis” to assess the external costs borne by all parties, its value and projected benefit.
However, he said that companies and governments tended to downplay the disruption costs and promote long-term benefits — a concept known as “optimism bias” in the industry.
“Lots of planners and developers will tend to note the disruption that’s suffered but assume in the long run the city is going to be better off,” he said.
“Is it all worth it? Well, it depends on the prize.”
This cost-benefit equation was put under the microscope during the construction of Sydney’s $3 billion light rail project.
For more than four years, large chunks of Sydney’s CBD and parts of its eastern suburbs became a construction zone.
Footpaths became roads.
Roads became more like mazes.
Pavements turned a different colour.
Businesses along the route were reassured about “the prize” that would come.
Three years before construction started, a NSW Government document talked about “a quieter and less chaotic environment with more space to move around” once the project was finished and a “more attractive, accessible environment for visitors, businesses and workers”.
After substantial cost blowouts, a parliamentary inquiry and significant disruption for residents and businesses along the route — resulting in a $40 million class action suit — the line finally opened in December, nine months later than projected.
But some commentators questioned whether the disruption was all worth it, as technical difficulties dogged its opening.
The slow speed of the route and passenger numbers have also come under scrutiny.
The NSW Government has since talked up the project being a catalyst for urban renewal and a development boom along its corridor.
A Transport NSW spokeswoman said there had been “around 39,000 trips each day”, but December and January were typically the “quietest months” of the year for public transport usage.
Planning and infrastructure experts are in almost universal agreement on one thing: Australia needs continual major infrastructure investment to catch up to population growth.
But they’re calling for greater scrutiny of the long-term cost benefits of these major infrastructure projects, known as a “post-completion review”.
Reviews have long been a recommendation from independent body Infrastructure Australia, but governments — federal, state and local — are not mandated to complete them.
A post-completion review of the Sydney project has not yet been conducted.
Grattan Institute transport and cities program director Marion Terrill said because they were not mandated, the reviews were rarely delivered.
“It costs money to go back to assess how well it went,” she said.
“No-one involved in the project has an incentive to do it — why would they want to highlight the problems?
“But as a population we have a great interest in that. It’s how we learn from mistakes.”
Will we ever get ahead?
With Australia’s population predicted to hit 30 million as soon as 2029, major infrastructure projects will continue to define our cities and disrupt our lives.
For Professor Gleeson, the cost benefit of most “city-shaping projects” is a no-brainer.
But he said: “We’re never going to catch up in Australia, we’re just staying on the tail of need.
“We just need to be smarter with the projects we choose, and when we do them.”
It’s a view also shared by both Dr Spiller and Ms Terrill, who deem the concept of “getting ahead” on infrastructure in Australia a “pipe dream”.
Yet, despite all the disruption these projects caused, for some it’s all just part of progress.
Within the four walls of his new shop in an underground arcade near the entrance to Martin Place station, Mr Srour is largely oblivious to the noise above him.
“I don’t go up there much,” he said. “I like it better down here.
“For me, thank god, everyday here in this city is better than the next.”
- Reporting and digital production: The Specialist Reporting Team’s Nick Sas
- Photography: The Specialist Reporting Team’s Brendan Esposito
- Editor: Paige Mackenzie