When the state government changes tack on a big road project, these are the people left wondering.
Late last year, the government told owners of the Presbyterian Aged Care facility at Haberfield, on Parramatta Road, that their building would be one of about 100 knocked down for the WestConnex motorway.
Managers started to make plans. Because the building was to go, they cancelled a new sprinkler system, made compulsory after a fire ripped through a Quakers Hill home in 2011. They held off on wifi for an electronic care program.
And they started to tell prospective residents the facility might not stay open for longer; beds have since stayed empty, and some residents have moved out.
But last week, the WestConnex Delivery Authority told the facility it may no longer be acquired. Or it may yet be. But the NSW government could not say one way or the other until the middle of 2015.
‘‘It is certainly not an ideal situation,’’ said Paul Sadler, the chief executive officer at Presbyterian Aged Care.
Sadler, like many along the WestConnex route, is not opposed to the idea of a new motorway under Parramatta Road. But he said that being kept in the dark was having a financial impact on the home, and affecting the morale of its residents and staff.
‘‘By withdrawing from negotiations with us, effectively the state government has extended that uncertainty for at least another year,’’ said Mr Sadler.
Only part of the story
When Mike Baird stood at the Anzac Bridge last month to announce the new motorway extensions his government could build with funds raised by electricity privatisation, he was telling only part of the story.
The Premier’s explanation was that the money to be raised would, among other things, allow major new links to be added to the proposed WestConnex motorway; links that would otherwise not be built for more than a decade.
In fact, the changes to the WestConnex had been brewing for months. They had been brewing since before Mike Baird’s predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, resigned and before the new Premier came to power seeking a mandate to sell off the poles and wires.
In one sense, this is not a surprise. Not a metre of WestConnex has been built, but already the motorway has been under the control of three different parent organisations, with different boards and subtly different cultures. And the plans for the project - potentially the largest in the country’s history and key to the political fortunes of both Baird’s government and Tony Abbott’s - have shifted accordingly.
Behind the scenes, people working on WestConnex are confident that the most recent changes to the 33-kilometre motorway will result in a toll road that will better fit the transport needs of Sydney.
But the public is being kept largely in the dark. And thousands of people who live along the motorway corridor will need to live with the stress of uncertainty well beyond next March’s state election.
The idea of a WestConnex motorway that would boost the capacity of the existing M4 and M5 and link them through tunnels under the inner west was conceived by Infrastructure NSW, the think-tank set up by O’Farrell to tell him what to build.
When the WestConnex concept emerged in October 2012, the most controversial element of it was the inclusion of a slot to be carved like a channel through the notorious traffic swamp of Parramatta Road.
O’Farrell, convinced by Infrastructure NSW chairman Nick Greiner that the slot was the only way to keep costs down, jumped at the plan.
In the face of resistance from Infrastructure NSW, which wanted to keep control of the project, the government immediately announced the creation of a Sydney Motorways Project Office to run the WestConnex concept. The SMPO was told to come up with a business case by ''mid'' 2013.
Paul Goldsmith, who had been the general manager of motorway projects in the old Roads and Traffic Authority, was appointed to run the office.
Almost immediately, however, the task of coming up with detailed plans for the motorway in seven months would prove a stretch. A summary business case was eventually released in September 2013 at a press conference also attended by Abbott, the new Prime Minister.
A month later, the government created a new organisation to oversee construction of the motorway. The WestConnex Delivery Authority, with a board chaired by Tony Shepherd, the seemingly ubiquitous business leader of choice for conservative governments, would now take over running the project.
At that stage, it looked like plans for the motorway were being locked in. It would essentially be built in three stages. The first would be a widened M4 and then a tunnel under Parramatta Road, emerging somewhere near the City West Link at Ashfield. The second would be another M5 East tunnel and link road to Sydney Airport. The third would be a tunnel under the inner west linking the first two stages.
By November, Roads Minister Duncan Gay was confident enough to release more detailed maps of the tunnel route along Parramatta Road.
For the owners of hundreds of properties in the inner west, these maps carried huge significance.
The WestConnex Delivery Authority immediately started contacting the owners of about 100 properties it thought it would need to acquire and demolish.
The owners of hundreds more properties were concerned that even if they were not bought out, their neighbourhoods would soon be overhauled for a motorway.
Last week, Gay conceded he may have released these plans ''too early'' and the acquisition process was suspended.
Baird’s announcement that WestConnex could also be extended to the Anzac Bridge and Victoria Road meant that work on the entire controversial Parramatta Road tunnel would need to wait until that route was finalised.
According to Baird, the extra funds raised by the privatisation program would allow a longer tunnel to be built.
But those close to the project say other factors have been at play, putting pressure on the government to redraw its plans for the first stage of the project.
One change has been an overhaul in staff. The project is at present without a chief executive, though Dennis Cliche from Melbourne’s EastLink toll road will start next month.
Goldsmith’s role, meanwhile, has been downgraded to the project director of the first WestConnex stage. There are also questions over whether he will keep that job after it was advertised in May. The WDA has sounded out others.
Christopher Swann, a former Macquarie Bank executive who was instrumental in designing the idea for the project at Infrastructure NSW, has been appointed to manage the project’s second stage.
Also instrumental, however, was the creation of the new WDA board. The government appointed Shepherd and the WDA board to run the project after it had already released the designs; it was only natural that the activist Shepherd would want to review what he was being put in charge of building.
In practical terms, the delay over the first stage of WestConnex will mean that ramps may not be needed near Ashfield and the City West Link. Instead, a tunnel should allow motorists to emerge from the M4 East at Rozelle, connecting directly to Anzac Bridge and Victoria Road.
The emerging risk, sources say, is that this will almost make it too easy for people to drive onto the Anzac Bridge from the west. A fix – where will people go once they get to the bridge? – will need to emerge.
And in the longer term, the extra traffic directed onto the Anzac Bridge will inevitably lead to calls for another road crossing of Sydney Harbour or Parramatta River.
Some say the extra work being done now will eventually lead to a better road.
David Hensher, the founding director of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at Sydney University, who is consulting on the traffic forecasts for WestConnex, said the promise of extra funds has allowed a more comprehensive plan for the motorway to start to be developed. This could mean a greater focus on public transport, after criticism that it was largely ignored in the initial plans.
''There's been a lot of discussion on this as the project has developed,'' Professor Hensher said.
Plans could eventually include removing a lane of traffic on Parramatta Road for a dedicated public transport corridor. ''That could be for buses. But that could be light rail. Light rail is the flavour of the month.”
Brendan Lyon, chief executive of private lobby Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, said it made sense for private construction companies to be given more time on the design of the motorway.
''While any delay in fully understanding the motorway and its impacts is disruptive for affected residents, it’s a 12-month delay to offer decades of benefits,'' he says.
As well, work on other sections of the project is continuing apace.
The environmental impact statement to widen – and re-toll – the existing M4 is expected to be released this month.
And an industry briefing on another M5 East tunnel should also occur later this month, with a request for tenders to construct this tunnel to be released soon after.
But significant anxiety remains, including among some who had hoped to benefit from WestConnex.
The delay in plans for the regeneration of the Parramatta Road corridor, for instance, has frustrated the property industry, which may now have to wait another year to get a handle on what is proposed.
''The industry is dying to know what is actually going on so they can make their investments and elevate the area,'' Stephen Albin, chief executive of the Urban Development Institute of Australia NSW, said. ''They need to really get it sorted.''
And then there are the locals, who have to live with the stress and uncertainty of not knowing what will happen to their homes.
The most likely houses or properties to be spared are those, like the aged care home, around Ashfield.
If a longer tunnel is built straight to Anzac Bridge, as the government has suggested, there may no longer be a need for new motorway ramps onto the City West Link.
But property owners around Concord, where plans had included ramps onto Concord Road, have also been told a decision on their houses can not be made until mid-2015.
The Member for Strathfield, Charles Casuscelli, said the WestConnex would still need ramps onto Concord Road. ‘‘At that end there shouldn’t be any changes,’’ he said.
The WestConnex Delivery Authority would not confirm this in writing.
At Haberfield, both Don Orr and Edith Rose would like to stay in the Presbyterian centre if they could.
’’I have inquired at different places,’’ said Mrs Rose, 82. ‘‘But if this is not coming down, I’ll be staying. I’ve got everything I need here: my DVD, video, my music, a nice big room.’’
The story WestConnex: people left wondering as plans shift and change first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.