Tollway tunnels beneath Balmain and Birchgrove

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced 16/3/17 that the Western Harbour Tunnel (WHT) and the Beaches Link Tunnel ‘will definitely be built’. The WHT spur from the Rozelle goods yard, which extends well into the peninsula, was mooted as a future appendage to Stage 3 of WestConnex in September 2016. Originally scheduled for completion in 2027, it appears that the WHT is now being fast-tracked. An extension of the partially-funded Stage 2 and (yet-to-be approved or funded) Stage 3 of WestConnex, the pair of tunnels under the peninsula would probably each be four lanes wide (to match recently-widened M4/M5 tunnels).

The path of the tunnels under Balmain and Birchgrove, shown in the map published in the SMH (17/3/17), suggests that the tunnels will exit the peninsula in the vicinity of Louisa Road. It would seem likely – given Sydney Motorway Corporation (SMC)’s penchant for acquiring government land such as local parks as ‘dive sites’ to facilitate spoil removal – that the SMC would take possession of Birchgrove Oval for the duration of the construction of the tunnels. This could take four years or more, during which time the public would almost certainly be denied access.

Birchgrove Oval is the geographical mid-point between the Rozelle goods yard spur and the northern side of the harbour. This seems a logical site from an SMC engineering point of view. It could mean convoys of trucks may be required to operate around the clock during construction to remove the hundreds of thousands of tons of spoil excavated from the tunnels, even if they were then just driven a short distance and unloaded onto barges. The mid-point dive site would permit tunnelling in two directions – under the harbour and back towards Rozelle – simultaneously. The SMC are wedded to this approach citing cost effectiveness.

The RMS acknowledge that there is an affected zone subject to both noise and vibration of about 350 metres-wide centred upon the pair of tunnels proposed to connect the Rozelle goods yard to the Iron Cove Bridge (Iron Cove Link). They also state (Addendum report, p. 9) that this noise is associated with both the construction and operation of the tunnels. It seems reasonable to assume that a similar but wider zone could apply to the tunnels beneath Balmain and Birchgrove, as they are likely to be four lanes each way.

Given the length of the tunnels to be dug under the peninsula there will need to be a pair of exhaust stacks to service each of the tunnels, one at each end. It’s likely that an inlet/exhaust stack could be constructed somewhere near the foreshore, most probably either in Yurulbin Park at the end of Louisa Road or the more likely site in Birchgrove Oval. This stack, wherever it is built, will not be filtered. The RMS are firmly of the opinion that there is no need to filter exhaust stacks. Andrew Mattes, the RMS spokesperson on pollution is on record (at a recent Inner West Council WestConnex Forum meeting) as stating ‘The exhaust emissions from the stacks rise up and simply dissipate into the atmosphere’. He stated that ‘exhaust stacks aren’t filtered anywhere in NSW as filtration is ineffective’. The RMS are also on record as dismissing filtration because ‘it’s too costly’.

At a time when exhaust emissions, especially when concentrated, have been proven to cause a variety of cancers, and that fossil fuel consumption is acknowledged as a major contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change, the wisdom of building inner-city tollways in preference to an integrated public transport system, surely has to be questioned. Tollways have been proven to be traffic inducers, and roads simply inefficient (especially when compared to moving people by rail). Figures provided from Gladys Berejiklian’s office when she was the Minister for Transport indicate that rail shifts 24,000 people per hour, whereas one road lane moves an absolute maximum of 2,300 vehicles per hour, utilising about the same amount of real estate.

Apart from the cost to health and the environment there is another very real human price to pay in all of this.  In Haberfield and Ashfield, Concord, St Peters and Newtown, families have been evicted and had their homes destroyed. Laws that protect heritage and historic homes have been shown to be meaningless. Some owners have literally had their homes stolen, receiving as little as 60 cents in the dollar. As a result they can no longer afford to remain in the communities that they have lived their lives in. The sense of loss, of friends, neighbours and the disconnect with community is both real and palpable.