sydney, call los angeles

In the Sydney Morning Herald today, I wonder out loud if Australian cities can move forward on public transport given the lack of a mechanism for local initiatives or referenda.  Based on our work last year on Sydney's Independent Public Inquiry, I compare Sydney's stasis with the aggressive building program in Los Angeles, and note that for better or worse, California's tradition of direct popular votes on spending plans makes it possible to lock those plans in for decades, providing the security that the private sector needs to do its part.  In Australia, where spending on big infrastructure happens through regular state budgets, nobody can make a commitment beyond the next election cycle, and nobody dares ask the public for a major new funding source.  So the Australian debate always seems to be about which one or two projects will be built in the current generation, and which will be left for our grandchildren to build.  My article is here.

15 Responses to sydney, call los angeles

  1. Edward February 28, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    I read your Sydney Morning Herald article with interest. I agree with it. A key difference between US and Australian States is their respective abilities to raise funds. If a State Government in the US chooses to add half a per cent to its sales tax to fund a new public transport project it can do so.
    On the other hand, in Australia, the equivalent of sales tax (the GST) is collected by the Commonwealth Government and redistributed to the States according to a complex formula. Due to a particular reading of section 90 of the Constitution, almost any indirect tax is considered a custom or excise and is therefore exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth. Any State tax that is determined to be a custom or excise is invalid.
    That, and some other High Court rulings over the years, have led to the vertical fiscal imbalance between the Australian States and Commonwealth. The States rely very heavily on funding from the Commonwealth. They can and do raise some of their own taxes but it is not nearly enough to make them self-reliant.
    I think it is a serious problem and one that prevents individual States from making the sorts of decisions you have suggested.

  2. Boris February 28, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    I am no transport consultant, but I have travelled extensively all over Europe and the USA, and it seems that the Sydney authorities who design the roads have lost all hint of common sense. How about starting by keeping cars away from bus lanes at the weekends? Take the Cross-City tunnel, which ends up at the back of Edgecliff. A 3-lane 80kph highway that ends up on a stretch of road where cars are allowed to park on bus lanes. The result is a massive roadblock because of a stupid funnel created by allowing cars to park on bus lanes. Same situation happens on Victoria Road along Balmain.
    I have commuted in LA, in Houston and Dallas on elevated highways. They are an ugly feature, but how wonderfully efficient are they? Wouldn’t an elevated highway along Parramatta Road linking to the freeway be much cheaper, more efficient and quicker to build than the expensive vision of grand tunnels for which we will have to pay anyway?
    It wouldn’t be that difficult to easy Sydney’s congestion if the purpose of of every congestion-relieving project wasn’t monetary in the first place. To get rid of the CBD congestion simply male the Cross-city tunnel free and charge to get into the CBD.
    Short-term planning, long-term profits has been the vision for Sydney roads so far. Inefficiently so.

  3. Corey Burger March 1, 2011 at 12:30 am #

    Don’t know much about Aussie tax structures, but here in Canada we don’t generally tax small random increases onto the sales tax.
    That being said, I am not certain that referenda are really the way to go. They can easily backfire and the whole process can lead to transit (and everything else)- destroying things like Washington’s I 1053.

  4. Casey March 1, 2011 at 1:59 am #
    I am a college senior in the Industrial Design Dep. of Kendall College. I am looking to gather information from mass transit users. If you would take your time to fill out this short survey it would help me greatly in producing a comprehensive project.

  5. Russ March 1, 2011 at 3:10 am #

    Edward is quite right about the ability of States to impose general forms of taxation, but not entirely with regard to a State’s revenue raising capabilities. The types of levies and tolls Jarrett outlined in his article are all within their remit; though it is fair to note that the Australian State governments have very few “invisible” taxation options, which no doubt affects their popularity.
    Unfortunately, the general principle that the Federal government has all the money has created a situation where State governments are willing to abrogate their responsibilities to plan, by tying projects to requests for Federal funding, and subsequently blaming them for their failure to budget for a project. This is particularly outrageous when you consider that (unlike the US) a Federal grant usually results in a subsequent reduction in GST allocation. Although even senior ministers seem oblivious to this important mechanism judging by recent news reports.

  6. Sydneysider March 1, 2011 at 4:41 am #

    I enjoyed reading the article and the positive comments posted by readers. I agree the public should have a greater say in large scale infrastructure investment. State governments in Australia have little incentive to make a strong public case for their projects, being the project advocate, approval authority and funding source. This can result in projects that are not optimised, or that are deferred to make way for the next idea. Giving additional power to the community would be one approach of decentralising this power. Governments would need to make a strong case to the public to demonstrate why that project is needed, and show that it is consistent with a long term strategy.
    We could go further, and adopt another feature of the US system where projects often require funding from local, state and federal governments. This has been happening to some extent at the federal level, though competitive funding submissions to Infrastructure Australia, but has further to go. Similarly, stronger local government could be an active partner, providing local input, support and funding. Without a broad base of support, the media will inevitably present a one sided view from those local residents and businesses that may be affected, which can result in the loss of the project and associated wider community benefits.

  7. EngineerScotty March 1, 2011 at 9:45 am #

    Several problems exist with the current Federal funding practices in the US:
    * Feds require a TON of red tape, which takes millions of dollars and tens of months to complete.
    * Feds only provide funding for capital, not operations.
    * Often times, many municipalities prioritize projects by “which has the best federal match”–and in the worst cases, transit projects are undertaken not for the purpose of improving transit, but for the purpose of maximizing a region’s share of the federal largesse.

  8. Chris March 1, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    I think we should be focusing on the problems that can be fixed without a lot of money. Why does Sydney have completely different fare structures for bus, rail, ferry, and private bus? Has it something to do with public subsidies – do Melbourne, Brisbane, etc. get more government subsidies for transit than Sydney? The other issue is bus route design. The fact that Sydney has to put up little signs to remind bus drivers when to turn illustrates the illogical nature of the bus routes. Let’s move the yellow signs and make the routes more direct.

  9. Scott Mercer March 1, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    I should clarify that the 0.5 sales tax increase implemented by a sales tax was NOT even put in place by a State Government but by a COUNTY government. This was Measure R, which was passed only by voters (yes, 67.2% of them) in Los Angeles County. True, about 12 million people live in this county, but lowly Yolo County in northern California with, I don’t know, probably 20,000 residents, could have done the same thing if they wanted to. Not only can individual states run referenda, but even Counties or Cities can do so as well.
    This is why you can have widely varying sales tax rates. 8.5% in this store here, 10% in that restaurant across the street, because, whoops, you just crossed the city line into Santa Monica from Los Angeles.
    Confusing? Yes. But, at times, it allows local jurisdictions to take their fates into their own hands. Some things should be planned at the federal level, but, as it turns out, transit is not one of them.

  10. Jack Horner March 1, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    @ Chris, why doesn’t Sydney have unified public transport tickets and fares [like other Australian cities and of course zillions of other places around the world]?
    Yes it’s mystifying, I can only assume it’s because over many years there has been a strong ‘silo’ mentality among the different authorities concerned, and the political leadership has been too lazy or incompetent to tell them to get their act together.
    There is no technical or legal reason that makes it harder than anywhere else. The public subsidies to all forms of urban public transport come from the same state government.
    There was a public transport smartcard project a few years ago, which fell over with much acrimony, a few hundred million dollars wasted, and continuing court cases between the government anad the contractor over who is more to blame.
    A common statement at the time (I don’t know how true it is) was that part of the problem was the government refused to untangle the extraordinarly complicated ticketing system (75 different fare products) first.
    The political problem with simplifying the ticketing system is that as with any such change there will be winners and losers: somewhere there will be a group of people who will scream because their special discount for travelling after 9am on the day of the full moon will be withdrawn.
    This is a city where the publicly owned rail authority (300 million trips per year) and the publicly owned major bus operator (200 million trips a year), on their websites, do not mention each other’s existence.
    The hopeless spaghetti that is Sydney’s bus network is another sign of the same mediocrity of leadership. Any change will leave *someone* unhappy, so no change is made.

  11. Jarrett at March 1, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    Murray.  I believe that the relative large size of Brisbane area councils (city governments), especially since the Beattie consolidation of 2007, has made a big difference there.  It's not just that more can be done at the municipal level, but also that bigger municipal governments have more heft in influencing state policy.  Sydney councils are extremely tiny. 

  12. In Brisbane March 1, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    Step 1: Get a single dedicated transport authority which collects all the $$$ and spends all the $$$, integrated fares followed by integrated ticketing.
    The rest will be much easier after this. The TransLink area is much larger than Brisbane- you have Logan, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Ipswich etc.
    I also think that large supercouncils are the way to go. Things get done and co-ordination over larger areas is much easier. Sydney and Melbourne should start amalgamating.

  13. Richard March 2, 2011 at 12:24 am #

    CityRail and Sydney buses may not be visible on each others’ websites, but the route planning phone and web service works across all services including ferries.
    There was much community lobbying for the Lane Cove tunnel which was delivered under a public private partnership and has gone broke. But the Roads Authority has form when it comes to plundering such projects and has more influence when it comes to accessing public funds then the public transport folk.
    I’m not convinced public opinion, which is so easily influenced by spin doctors, has the expertise to prioritise transport projects just as they would not be skilled at appointing many people (e.g., judges or even dog catchers) to public office.

  14. Pete March 2, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    Not surprising really when you consider Australia has inherited the British model of government. In the UK power is centralised at Westminster and local authorities have to bid for funding from the Dept for Transport for any public transport schemes. The scrutiny process is long and drwan out, and often the rules will change part way through necessitating a re-bid. All the schemes ‘approved’ by the outgoing Labour administration are now being re-competed by the Coalition. Inevitably there’s not enough money in the pot for all, so some wil fall by the wayside.

  15. Andrew March 5, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    California is the same state that passed anti transit and everything else public Prop 13 which deprived municipalities of much tax revenue. Referendums have big downsides you know.