The time has come for my Christmas wish list.

It is quite a short list. I want just one thing. Technically the one thing that I want is actually nothing. The minor problem with the nothing that I want is that there is currently something where I want nothing. I want a hole. Maybe even a pair of holes. I want the parallel holes to be nice and round and straight with a flat bitumen base and stretch in a 70.5 kilometre straight line from Mount Lambie on the Great Western Highway (just before Lithgow) through to the start of the M4 Western Motorway at Emu Plains. Before this is dismissed as a pipe dream by someone with tunnel vision (no apologies for the double pun) I want to look at some other visionary projects in our history and crunch some numbers.

One of my complaints with our modern political environment is that governments tend to call a long term project one that starts just after an election and comes to fruition just before the next election. That means that any project that is longer than three or four years struggles to gain any traction. Once upon a time we used to have vision – think back to some major projects (some may even say iconic projects) in our history.

The first sod was turned for the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 July 1923. The bridge was officially opened on 19 March 1932. Over eight years in construction. The cost – in equivalent 2014 dollars – was $556 million. The two-way toll collection was designed to pay for the cost of the bridge – which it did – but it took 56 years.

The Opera House commenced construction on 2 March 1959. It was formally opened on 20 October 1973. This project required long-term government commitment for the 14 year project – at a current cost of $880 million – to come to fruition.

Thinking of Sydney without these two iconic landmarks is like thinking of a teenager without rebellion. These governments showed that they were prepared to view projects for the long-term benefit of the nation.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme is the largest engineering project ever undertaken in Australia and is one of the most complex integrated hydro-electric power schemes in the world. The sixteen major dams; seven power stations; pumping station; 225 kilometres of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts were officially started on 17 October 1949 and the ribbon was cut just over 23 years later on 21 October 1972 at a cost of $6.13 billion (current terms).

Back to my hole. Everyone west of Lithgow can see the advantages offered by a tunnel under the Blue Mountains BUT I can hear you say that we simply don’t have the population density to support this. Before we jump to any conclusions, I have some numbers that we should consider (my wife tells me I bore people with numbers but I like to build some facts around my arguments and numbers are black and white).

A trip from the Dubbo Post Office to the old GPO at the centre of Sydney, 1 Martin Place, is 406km. If it was possible to sit precisely on the posted speed zones all the way, the journey would take 4h 47m. Now consider just the Blue Mountains traversal. From Mount Lambie to Emu Plains, when there are no roadwork imposed speed zones, there are approximately thirty two changes in the posted speed zone (anywhere from 40km/h to 80km/h) resulting in a weighted average speed limit of 67km/h. The distance is 104 kilometres so the theoretical legal crossing time is 1h 33m – but the terrain and the constant change in speed zones results in a typical crossing much longer than that.

A straight tunnel crossing with a speed limit of 110km/h would result in that distance being covered in a theoretical 38m – and it would be possible to achieve much closer to the speed limit on a multi-lane motorway. This results in a reduction in time of 55m and a reduction in distance of 33.5km. Imagine doing a legal Dubbo to Sydney drive in less than 4 hours! It would open up Bathurst, Orange and Mudgee and practically make Lithgow a suburb of Sydney.

The cost to run an average vehicle (including fuel and maintenance) is 24.42 cents per kilometre so the average person would save $8.18 in real costs with the reduction in distance (trucks cost over $1.05 per kilometre so their saving would be over $35 in real costs for each trip). It therefore wouldn’t be unreasonable to charge $12 per car and $24 per truck to use the tunnel. With close to 30,000 vehicles using the Blue Mountains daily (with the figure rising after the tunnel was built) and 15 per cent of all traffic being trucks, the annual amount generated by tolls would be in the vicinity of $151 million. Then there are the productivity benefits for users. With 47.3 per cent of car use for business purposes and averaging an employee’s value at $100 per hour, the time savings would generate $595 million in additional productivity per year. Our road stats show we have 0.7 deaths per 100 million vehicle kilometres therefore the reduction in kilometres travelled should result in 3.7 fewer deaths per year – which may be even higher given the more dangerous road over the mountains. The environment is also a winner. Based on current traffic and the reduction in distance by going through the mountains rather than over them, there would be an annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to the tune of 136.8 million kilograms. This is ignoring the fact that cars are more efficient sitting at a constant speed rather than the stop-start nature of travelling over the Blue Mountains.

The environmental, social and financial benefits are there for all to see – some would say they are obvious – but what about actually building it.

We see tunnels being created all over the world. China; Japan; UK; France; South Korea; Russia; Spain; Singapore and Switzerland and more all have significant tunnels. China has a 60.4km tunnel in Guangzhou and the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland will soon open twin tunnels at 57.1km in length.

On a long straight tunnel the cost could be expected to be in the vicinity of $40 million per kilometre for twin tunnels (although prices in India are quoted as low as $30 million per kilometre). That would result in a $2.82 billion build cost. Some tunnel building machines (TBMs) can dig as fast as 115 metres per day so the actual tunnels could be completed in under two years. If all of the $151 million in toll fees could be put towards the build cost, it would result in a straight financial Return on Investment (ROI) of less than 19 years. That is ignoring CPI increases and additional traffic – both of which would reduce the ROI – and all of this ignores the real productivity, social and regional expansion benefits.

Sydney has four new TBMs that are about to start the North-West Rail Link. That project is due to be completed in 2017 and, although they are slower at around 120 metres per week, the project could still be completed within six years using these second-hand TBMs.

So there you have it. A project that stacks up financially and socially that helps grow regional Australia and take pressure off the urban sprawl of Sydney. All we need now is a government with the vision to implement it!

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