Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The National Ports Strategy: help or hindrance for the Highway to Hell?

The National Ports Strategy released in December 2010 by the National Transport Commission contains a lot of vital information for those concerned about the future of Fremantle. The document talks of nationally consistent environmental management, sustainable development, introduction of buffers to separate residents from Ports’ activities and clarity, transparency and accountability.

Its recommendations include some that could produce less polluting freight transport to and from the port and others that could produce a ten-lane truck sewer running continuously day in, day out pumping particulate pollution all over Fremantle.

The strategy speaks of “streamlined environmental impact approvals” for strategic freight corridors, organising freight traffic so that it runs “into off-peak and weekend periods” and establishing “a small independent panel…of people with significant prior private sector leadership experience inport and freight logistics…to oversee implementation of the strategy.”

The WA Department of Transport’s submission to the ports inquiry highlights its plans for reserving “enough land and protecting corridors in our metropolitan area for the future long-term demands of the container trades” – bureaucratese for its High Street/Stirling Highway truck paradise plans.

Fremantle residents cannot be complacent about this, thinking that a truck-only freight solution will never eventuate. In fact the DoT has already readied the amendment to the road reserve for the High Street/Stirling Highway section from Carrington Road to Stirling Bridge providing for eight lanes of roadway, with provision for ten lanes in the future. The amendment will go to Parliament soon.

The move of freight from rail to road is being accelerated by the Barnett government. The recent closure of country rail lines will add tens of thousands of truck movements to the road system.

Wheat, which of all products should be moved by bulk rail, is currently being trucked in shipping containers to Fremantle Port. This transport will explode under the Barnett government/DoT regime. The killing of the country rail network will reduce freight rail movements on the rest of the system, thus justifying shutting down the entire network.

Diesel particulate pollution is the great danger from the current strategy. Visible smog is not the greatest problem; trucks expel clouds of invisible micro particles, coated with carcinogens that bypass the body’s defence mechanisms delivering their deadly load deep into the lungs. The smallest particles can pass through the lungs and into the body.

The National Ports Strategy aims at producing a standardised approach to ports across Australia. Ports will be required to publish long-term plans for their development, which include the facilitation of trade in an unsubsidised manner.

The trucking industry is notoriously subsidised through its refusal to pay for maintaining the public roads it destroys. The WA Local Government Association pointed out in its submission to the Ports Inquiry that the 2007-08 estimated cost of keeping local roads in their current condition was $473.7 million. But local governments could only afford to spend $331.3 million. The time is coming,WALGA says “for a real road pricing debate”.

Residents of the Gibson Park precinct went through years of consultation with the DoT over plans to widen High Street. No sooner had the residents agreed to a DoT proposal (Option 4) then DoT started preparing its “Rolls Royse” plan, the semi-secret Option 5.

Option 5 would carve an enormous trench through area next to the existing High Street, tunnel under the High Street/Stirling Highway intersection and come to the surface as part of an eight lane super highway to Stirling Bridge.

This engineering monstrosity is estimated to cost around $150 million. The refurbishment of the entire WA country rail network would cost an estimated $90 million.

Luckily, there are aspects of the National Ports Strategy that Fremantle residents can use toprotect our community. For example, the 30 year plan required of Fremantle Ports Authority will have to “embody a sustainable development agenda, that addresses the need for major new developments to have a social licence to operate”. Moreover, the plan will be required to be placed within the Fremantle city plan.

What is needed immediately in Fremantle is for all our public representatives to put themselves on record as opposing the DoT’s Option 5 plans for massively expanding truck movements to and from our port. Adele Carles must commit herself to opposing the DoT’s road reserve amendment when it gets tabled in Parliament and she and the Greens must lead the charge in exposing the DoT’s plans.

The entire Fremantle council, no matter their political alignment must mobilise all the resources of the council to push for the only rational solution to freight transport: getting as much as possible onto rail. Melissa Parke must intervene at the federal level, given that the strategy is a federal ALP project, to demand that residents’ needs be protected.

The National Ports Strategy is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get things right for Fremantle Port. If residents don’t seize the chance the Department of Transport, the Barnett government and “a small independent panel…of people with significant prior private sector leadership experience in port and freight logistics” will use the provisions for declaring the High Street/Stirling Highway a strategic route to ride straight over the top of residents and build the Highway to Hell.

[This article by Fremantle Socialist Alliance member Barry Healy was first published by the Fremantle Herald on 26 February 2011. Barry Healy is a resident of Holland Street, Fremantle and has been studying the effects of particulate pollution for many years.]