THIS should be a great time for the NSW government and Newcastle City Council, as far as the spectacular overhaul of the CBD is concerned.
The wraps are off what is probably the biggest urban renewal project in the state outside of Sydney, and a CBD that was once as dead as a door nail is being steadily reactivated.
At night, the first of the fleet of futuristic trams can be seen on the tracks as operator Keolis Downer prepares for scheduled services to start in February or early March.
With Christmas approaching, and with businesses along Hunter Street looking forward to the “long term gain” they were promised for enduring “short term pain”, this should be a time for optimism, for saying thank you to a government that had delivered on an enormous and expensive promise.
Instead, it seems to me that there’s a mood of profound uncertainty in the air, as the degree of change brought about by the light rail program begins to sink in.
Perhaps this is only to be expected. As time moves on – and as people get used to the new situation in the CBD – perhaps these concerns will disappear, leaving us wondering what we were worried about in the first place. But after spending more than a week looking at cycle safety – and hearing concerns from taxi operators and delivery drivers along the way – it seems as if a debate over the merits of the change has only just begun.
At this late stage there is nothing that can be done about the design. All those countless tonnes of steel and concrete are in place, and going nowhere.
But to ask questions – as the Newcastle Herald and other Newcastle media have done this week in exploring the cyclists’ concerns – is not to want the project to fail, as council chief executive Jeremy Bath argued this week. But it is, in my opinion, part of the process of finding a way forward, given that one of the major stated reasons for the project was to create a more people-friendly CBD, in which the pedestrian and the cyclist had as much space as – if not precedent over – the motor vehicle.
It was also about creating a more prosperous city centre. Revitalising Newcastle had described the equation as “short-term pain for long-term gain” and after a year of construction disruption, those businesses that survived should be looking forward to an improvement in their fortunes. I hope that is the case, but there are signs the renewal might not be as straightforward as the authorities must have hoped it would be.
The usual response to parking concerns is to say that people can leave their cars at the edge of the city, and that official studies show there is no real shortage of parking in the city, only a perceived one. But most of these spaces will be at a distance from where people want to be. And it’s not just everyday motorists. With most of the loading zones gone from Hunter Street and Scott Street, delivery drivers say their jobs have been made a lot harder. So do the cabbies.
Revitalising Newcastle maps show only two taxi ranks on the light rail route – one on the outward side of Hunter Street in the block west of Auckland Street, the other in Perkins Street, outside the Crown and Anchor hotel.
As for hailing a cab off the street, most of the route is governed by “No Stopping” signs. Although interpreting traffic laws is perhaps best left to lawyers, this seems to make it unlawful for anyone to stop along most of the strip, whether it’s a taxi or an Uber wanting to pick up or drop off a fare, or someone picking up an aged mother from the Civic, having parked in King Street in the rain.
The Herald was also contacted this week by someone who’d seen a long line of cars in Hunter Street, trapped behind a garbage truck emptying bins along the light rail route. Revitalising Newcastle responded by saying that “bins will be collected as they are for any other single lane road, for example, King Street”.
The obvious answer is probably to empty the bins in the dark before everyone is up, but it’s these sorts of teething problems that you might think would be worked out before the project went ahead, given the numbers of consultants whose expertise was paid for during the approvals process.
Some might say these are minor points, when the main game is to revitalise the city by bringing back business, attracting visitors, and dramatically increasing the residential population. But the rebirth will only happen – and be sustained – if the infrastructure works. Putting light rail on the road triggered a chain reaction of changes. The impacts might have been modelled, but it’s only now that we’re seeing them in real life. And that’s before the tram starts to run.
I certainly don’t want it to fail. After all, I was part of a Newcastle delegation that went to France in early 2016 with Keolis Downer to look at how light rail had been part of a renaissance in French regional towns. Although I reported some reservations at the time, I thought light rail could work for Newcastle, too. Now, almost three years later, it’s something I still want to believe.