Perth Freight Link hits a rock

Community resistance to the Perth Freight Link, a $1.6 billion freeway project proposed by the state and federal governments for the south-west region of Perth is growing at an explosive pace. The strength and depth of this opposition is now so strong that the issue will almost certainly dominate the next federal and state election campaigns.

While the part of the freeway that would cut through the Beeliar Wetlands, known as Roe 8, has long been favoured by the Liberals at state and federal level, its continuation towards Fremantle Port is the product of a classic Tony Abbott "thought bubble", announced without any consultation with the state government, local governments, the transport industry or affected communities.

The consequence of this has been a chaotic combination of secrecy and contradictory information coming from the agencies tasked with starting work on the freeway in early 2016 but who do not yet even have a defined route. The uncertainty as to which residents may find themselves next to a six-lane highway or have their homes compulsorily acquired has added to the sense of chaos and outrage.

The freeway is touted as a direct route to the Fremantle port, but it stops short of that location on the wrong side of the Swan River. This has been conceded by Main Roads WA who have been considering extending it via a duplication of the Stirling Highway bridge and further flyovers that would push the cost of the project to more than $3 billion and cut a swath through East and North Fremantle.

In May four community groups opposed to the freeway — Save Beeliar Wetlands, Rethink the Link, Fremantle Road to Rail and 350.org — came together to form Rethink Perth Freight Link. This alliance has since been joined by a further 23 community groups and three local councils; the City of Fremantle, the Town of East Fremantle and the City of Cockburn.

The growth in the campaign alliance has been matched by the mushrooming of local neighbourhood groups and a frenetic level of activity. For a month and half not a week has gone by without a large community protest or public meeting taking place. Typical of this was the exuberant crowd of 500 people who marched through suburban Hamilton Hill in driving rain on July 5, led by a truck carrying dancing children and blaring AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" through loudspeakers.

No proper cost–benefit analysis that captures all the costs of the freeway has been attempted. Such a study would include capital costs, loss of remnant bushland, destruction of urban connectivity and amenity, increased congestion on feeder roads, greenhouse gas emissions and health impacts of carcinogenic diesel particulate pollution. Once calculated, this cost should be compared to alternatives including the expansion of public transport and rail freight infrastructure.

However, in the "freeways equal shiny progress" land of Abbott's imagination such objective analysis is unnecessary, no matter how much public money he spends. This fanatical freeway fundamentalism was borne out by his withdrawal of more than $500 million in federal co-funding for the "Max Light Rail" that had been promised by Abbott's own WA colleagues at the last state election, and its replacement with a freeway that no one asked for.

The state and federal governments claim to have done a business plan but this has been kept secret on the basis that its proposed operation as a toll-way by a private partner makes it "commercial in confidence".

Attempts by local activists and members of parliament to access the business plan via Freedom of Information applications to the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development have hit a brick wall, with the Director asserting via a mind-boggling leap of logic that this would not be in the public interest. It begs the question, which bit of the "public interest" is being served: the general public or the freeway construction and tollway companies?

To sharpen the focus on the complete failure of state and federal governments to canvass either the true costs of the freeway or potential alternatives, the City of Fremantle commissioned the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute to assess the project.

The report, Making the Right Investment in Perth's Freight Task, points out that for two decades all the relevant state agencies in WA, under both Labor and Liberal governments, have worked on the assumption that when Fremantle harbour reaches capacity a new port would have to be built to the south in Cockburn Sound. It is clearly absurd to pour billions of dollars into a freeway running to the existing port before resolving that issue.

It further points out that the state government will have a financial disincentive to encourage more container traffic onto rail if its private tollway partner is dependent on increasing truck movements to get a return on its investment. In fact, the state government has already sabotaged attempts to get more containers on rail by returning funding for a satellite container hub connected to the port by rail that had been approved by the previous federal Labor government.

In a further twist the state government is proposing to privatise the Fremantle port at the same time. By doing this the two things have become inextricably linked, the freeway becoming the gift wrapping for the private port owner. This has drawn the Maritime Union of Australia into the campaign and they are now energetic participants in the Rethink Perth Freight Link alliance.

The City of Cockburn has been taking out extensive public advertising opposing the project. To Fremantle's north the Cottesloe Residents Association has also joined the campaign. In spite of its name, more than 90% of traffic on the freeway is expected to be private motor vehicles, which will all be funnelled into Perth's leafy western suburbs, including the Premiers own electorate.

The Rethink Perth Freight Link alliance has launched a special pledge to which it is seeking signatories. It reads,

"I am opposed to the state and federal governments constructing the proposed Perth Freight Link. I, along with other community members, will engage in peaceful but determined protest activity in opposition to this unpopular, costly and environmentally devastating freeway."

Around the country campaigns to stop socially and environmentally destructive freeways are emerging as the urban Franklin Dam campaigns of our era. They embody two different visions for our cities: one that serves the endless growth of motor traffic and those that profit from it, versus cities that serve the people who live in them.

[Sam Wainwright is a Councillor at the City of Fremantle, Co-convenor of Rethink Perth Freight Link and activist with Fremantle Road to Rail. He is also a member of the Socialist Alliance. This article was first published in Green Left Weekly]

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