Treasurer's future tied to road link

Without an election to fight in the next 12 months, Tuesday's state budget was always going to be a low-key affair: continued tight restraints on spending as it squeezes the public sector for greater efficiencies while looking to the private sector to fund selected projects.

Without an election to fight in the next 12 months, Tuesday's state budget was always going to be a low-key affair: continued tight restraints on spending as it squeezes the public sector for greater efficiencies while looking to the private sector to fund selected projects.

At the macro-level, the state government reckons NSW will largely sidestep the fallout from the slowdown in the resources boom, which will play out more intensely in Queensland and Western Australia since, both of these states enjoyed large upswings from the boom.

Perhaps. More notable is the optimism that the fall in interest rates will be good news for the property market and push up revenues from stamp duties. Revenue here is running at record levels, with $5 billion projected for 2013-14 and strong growth expected over the four-year forward estimates period, to top $6 billion a year.

The other fillip to revenue in the year ahead will be the sale of part of the revenue stream from state lotteries, which is yet to be finalised. This could raise several billion dollars, depending on how much of this revenue stream is sold off.

After raising $4.3 billion from selling Port Botany and Port Kembla, the Port of Newcastle is now on the block. The government reckons this will raise $700 million but the final figure could move closer to $1 billion given that Newcastle hosts the largest undeveloped deep water port in the state and parts of the port are underutilised.

The real take-out from the budget is the funding of the proposed $13 billion-plus WestConnex road link that will run from the M4 to Sydney Airport, which includes duplicating the M5 East. The proposal holds the potential to make or break the political future of state Treasurer Mike Baird.

The government has earmarked $1.8 billion for WestConnex over the next four years, starting with an initial $111 million in the 2013-14 budget. This matches the amount put on the table by the federal government, which has insisted no toll be attached - a condition a Coalition government would remove if elected.

Key studies on how to stage this large project are yet to be finalised, but the government will take the first stage on its "balance sheet" before selling it on, once revenue flows from tolls are known. The government has downplayed the risk element, but it is significant.

The basic pieces are to extend the M4 from North Strathfield to Taverners Hill, Petersham, then a tunnel from Petersham to St Peters, and a further link from St Peters to the Airport. Then there is the duplication of the M5 East.

Traffic flows - on the M4 and M5 East - are known already, which will indicate potential revenue and make their extensions essentially "brownfield" projects. The high-cost tunnel to St Peters will be a harder call.

The M5 East duplication would appear to be readily bankable, depending on how key elements such as the interaction of this tunnel with the existing tunnel is determined. It could also rank as an "unsolicited proposal" if an innovative proposal is put on the table for discussion.

Given the patchy track record of traffic forecasts for toll roads - the initial owners of both the Cross City Tunnel and the Lane Cove Tunnel lost most of their money due to optimistic traffic forecasts - and with investors wary about assuming too much risk in the present financial environment, the government had little choice but to fill the breach itself.

Along with construction risk, there will be political risk for the government of the day if it has to wear a sizeable "loss" from the gap between what the private sector is prepared to pay for the completed portion of the project and the amount already outlaid.

Given that some stages of the project will run to several billion dollars, the cost, or "losses", from sunk capital will not be small and will be exacerbated to the extent that tolls cannot capture all of the economic efficiencies from large capital works projects.

Political risk will also emerge if traffic is "funnelled", or forced to use the new links, the same way the Carr government suffered a backlash when the Cross City Tunnel was built.

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