The proposed motorway connection between Sydney’s M1 and M2 motorways has seen various incarnations since it was originally planned in the 1970s, but a common thread between the proposals has been a gradual drift away from common sense.
Originally planned as the Lane Cove Valley Expressway in the 1970s, the New South Wales state government’s plan was to build a road extending from the Gladesville Bridge up into the Lane Cove National Park towards Marsfield, from where it would split into two sections; one being the Sydney – Newcastle Expressway and the other being the North Western Freeway or Castlereagh Expressway, bound for Blacktown and then on to Richmond. This idea was scrapped in the late 1970s, and with good reason – the destruction of Lane Cove Valley bushland would have represented a blight on the city’s northern green space, and planning for the Harbour Bridge / Gore Hill Freeway corridor was well underway, negating a need for traffic to be diverted through Sydney’s inner west.
When the southerly section of the Sydney – Newcastle Freeway was built in the mid-1980s, talk continued about a southerly extension of the road, along a controversial piece of land known as the B2/B3 corridor. This would have followed a similar path to the proposed Lane Cove Valley Expressway, but the public’s attention was brought to the road’s proximity to houses adjacent to the B2/B3 corridor, in Fox Valley and South Turramurra. The land comprising the B2/B3 corridor was abandoned in 1995 to preserve the bushland in this area. However then, under the Carr government, little else was offered to relieve growing traffic volumes on the Pacific Highway and Pennant Hills Road.
In 2004, under the Labor state government, several options were put forth in a study by engineering firm SKM to connect the M2 Motorway and the F3 Freeway (henceforth referred to by its current name, the M1 Pacific Motorway). These options covered four main routes known as;
- the Red Option (a tunnel under Warrawee Valley and South Turramurra)
- the Yellow Option (a tunnel under the original B2/B3 path in Fox Valley)
- the Blue Option (a tunnel skirting the Lane Cove Valley under Thornleigh and Pennant Hills)
- the Purple Option (a tunnel under Pennant Hills Road and/or the Northern Railway line)
From these, and after community consultation, the Purple Option was selected due a variety of reasons;
- the need to reduce traffic and particularly heavy vehicle traffic on Pennant Hills Road.
- the need to provide a Sydney bypass for motorists travelling between the M1 and the M5 (towards Goulburn).
This proposal, currently named NorthConnex, has now advanced to the planning stage, and in March it was announced that the contract to build the motorway had been awarded. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, outlined below.
Pacific Highway ignored
The current plan does not address the issue of rising traffic on the Pacific Highway. Traffic arriving from the Central Coast bound for Sydney’s CBD currently travels along the Pacific Highway through Turramurra and Gordon. Sydney’s North Shore is experiencing a rise in population after progressive apartment developments, along with ongoing suburban development on the Central Coast. All of this contributes to congestion on the Pacific Highway, and on the North Shore train line. SKM’s 2004 study even highlighted the fact that a majority of through traffic exiting the M1 at Wahroonga travel along the Pacific Highway, rather than along Pennant Hills Road (see diagram below). Unless Central Coast commuters find employment in locations other than Sydney’s CBD and North Shore, logic dictates that congestion on both road and rail networks will increase as the population does, and in line with the natural growth of the labour market in Sydney City.
NorthConnex does not provide a solution to this problem for two reasons; firstly, and most obviously, the road travels southwest from the end of the M1 at Wahroonga, heading away from Sydney’s CBD, before allowing motorists to joint the M2. While this is undoubtedly attractive to commuters travelling from the Central Coast to Western Sydney, it is unlikely that a motorist would happily pay a toll to be taken to from Wahroonga to Sydney via Carlingford.
This is compounded by the fact that under the current proposal, NorthConnex would only have a direct connection to the M2 westbound. Motorists who travel to Sydney on NorthConnex would have to rejoin Pennant Hills Road in Carlingford, before making a left hand turn on to the M2 at the existing set of traffic lights – and pay a steep toll for the privilege.
The same is true in reverse, for motorists on the M2 travelling between the city and the Central Coast, who would need to exit the M2 motorway and turn right at a set of traffic lights, rejoin Pennant Hills Road and then enter the NorthConnex tunnel. Therefore, even someone travelling between the city and the Central Coast who could overlook the diversion via Sydney’s northwest and NorthConnex’s hefty toll, would be punished for taking the route by being dumped back onto Pennant Hills Road while traffic bound for Western Sydney would flow on through.
With NorthConnex built, there would remain little scope for a further motorway project on Sydney’s North Shore, and successive state governments have demonstrated their reluctance to invest in public transport. While the Purple Option was undoubtedly attractive to North Shore residents who don’t want a tunnel running under their suburbs, it unclear how desirable continued traffic congestion on the Pacific Highway and crowded North Shore commuter trains without any alternative would be.
Dangerous goods, other traffic remains above ground
In line with most major road tunnels, NorthConnex will not allow passage to trucks carrying dangerous goods, meaning that the dangerous materials will continue rumbling along suburban Pennant Hills Road. Exactly how a Pennant Hills Road resident is supposed to feel comforted about this fact remains unanswered. Additionally, a state government website boasts that fifty percent of heavy vehicles and thirty per cent of light vehicles are forecast to use NorthConnex. The economics of building an $3bn road tunnel for only thirty per cent of cars and fifty per cent of trucks doesn’t seem to add up, and that’s if motorists opt for NorthConnex at all; New South Wales’ experience with the Cross City Tunnel demonstrated that traffic forecasts aren’t always realised.
Redundant due to M9 development?
The reason for the choice of the Purple Option is often cited as providing a link in Sydney’s Oribtal Road network, therefore providing a link for vehicles wanting to avoid Sydney altogether. From south to north, vehicles would be able to travel along the M5 Hume Freeway, then join the M7 Westlink near Liverpool, travelling around Sydney’s northwestern perimeter, then veering north at Carlingford through NorthConnex and on to the M1 at Wahroonga bound for Newcastle
However this is at odds with the New South Wales government’s long-term strategy of developing an Outer Orbital Road, also called the M9 (see map below left). The Outer Orbital Road would bypass the metropolitan area almost completely, departing from the M5 at Campbelltown, swinging out west past Penrith towards Windsor or Richmond. It would then proceed across the Hawkesbury River between Spencer and Wiseman’s Ferry, joining the M1 somewhere west of Gosford. The M9 is an excellent long-term project in that it provides the near total Sydney bypass that motorists would require. It also provides the second Hawkesbury River crossing that has been discussed for years, offering an alternative route if the M1 is closed by bushfire or some other incident, as often occurs (the need for a second Hawkesbury River crossing is briefly explained on page 7 of this document, part of SKM’s 2004 report). But the question must then be asked if it would render the NorthConnex redundant in its originally
stated aim, that is to complete the bypass of Australia’s biggest city. A Brisbane motorist bound for Canberra or Melbourne would logically take the M9 at Gosford to bypass Sydney altogether, rather than negotiate the traffic of the M1 near Wahroonga, NorthConnex, the M2 through the Hills District and then the M7. Thus the connection between the M1 and the M2 logically becomes a north-south connection, allowing motorists a fast link to Sydney or Western Sydney from the Central Coast and beyond. This is also in line with the M1’s new designation as the Pacific Motorway, a link between Sydney and Brisbane to complement the Pacific Highway (much as the motorway-standard Hume Motorway has complemented and replaced much of the old Hume Highway between Sydney and Melbourne).
It is clear that the NorthConnex motorway will struggle to achieve its aims of providing a long-term solution to heavy traffic on Pennant Hills Road; it is doubtful that any type of motorway will do this. A potential solution to this would be to offer a respectable and affordable public transport option to the seventy per cent of cars that are forecast to avoid NorthConnex. This could be done through additional high-capacity, high-speed train services from the Central Coast to Strathfield, Parramatta and beyond into Western Sydney. Commuters who travel between points on Pennant Hills Road could benefit from more regular bus services, making more frequent stops and strategically timed to meet express train services. Similar services could be offered on the North Shore line with the aim of alleviating traffic congestion on the Pacific Highway.
There’s no doubt that some form of road link is required between the end of the M1 at Wahroonga and the M2, to relieve pressure on other major arteries and to complete the national highway network’s passage through Sydney; travellers heading towards Sydney from northern NSW or Brisbane should not drive hours on motorway-standard road through rural areas, only to be dumped on to local roads once they reach Sydney. However the route that the road should take is crucial. It’s clear that NorthConnex is not only short-sighted in this regard (as it will eventually be superseded by the M9), but it will not solve ongoing traffic issues on the Pacific Highway, and will only slightly help the situation on Pennant Hills Road.
A better option to relieve pressure on the Pacific Highway would be to offer an alternative; that is, to provide the city-bound onramps between NorthConnex and the M2 at Carlingford with the aim of attracting motorists trying to avoid bottlenecks at Turramurra and Chatswood.
It’s most likely too late now, but it goes without saying that the Yellow Option would have achieved this more effectively by cutting kilometres of tunnel out of the journey and operating as an alternative to the Pacific Highway as well as Pennant Hills Road. An interchange in North Epping could have provided both city-bound and west-bound connections, meaning that the M1 would cater for Central Coast traffic heading into the city as well as to the western suburbs. Importantly, a similar proposal was put forth in 2005 by motorway operators Transurban for similar reasons, as discussed in this 2007 Sydney Morning Herald article, however details of that proposal seem difficult to find online.
Additionally, the yellow option would have operated as a tunnel under tracts of bushland, meaning that compared with NorthConnex’s plan, less homeowners would have a major motorway running beneath their houses. The topography of the area is no doubt a challenge (the Lane Cove National Park is much more rugged than the Pennant Hills Road corridor) and would increase the cost of building such a tunnel, but surely that increase is more easily justified than $3 billion wasted on the current ineffective proposal.
Sadly, it seems that the New South Wales government is set to repeat the mistakes of the past by spending millions of dollars on a white elephant. While pre-1990s proposals of a motorway cutting through protected Lane Cove Valley bushland are clearly unacceptable, the people of northern Sydney need to consider what they want from their government; tax money spent on a NIMBY alternative, or an combined public transport-motorway strategy which could have a real impact on the traffic volumes on both Pennant Hills Road and the Pacific Highway.
NB: Interestingly, although probably not significantly, as of 2nd May 2014 Google Maps illustrates a proposal running directly below houses in Fox Valley and South Turramurra, between the proposed Yellow and Red Options of 2004 (the ‘Orange Option’ perhaps?). See images below.