It’s time to complete the Belconnen Transitway

HomeNewsBlogIt’s time to complete the Belconnen Transitway

Previously on this website, we discussed the various ways Canberra’s light rail network can be extended to Belconnen, as part of a more significant east-west line running through to the Airport via the City and Russell. As outlined in the 2019 ACT Infrastructure Plan, this line is earmarked as Stage 3, to be delivered following the Stage 2 extension south to Woden.

However, the latest revelation that the 1.7-kilometre light rail extension from Alinga Street to Commonwealth Park (Stage 2A) won’t be complete until 2027-28 suggests that this project is a fair way off. At the current rate of progress, we are unlikely to see light rail vehicles servicing Belconnen and the Airport until the very late 2030s.

With Belconnen set to be home to twenty thousand new residents by the middle of next decade, some form of interim public transport improvements will be required. The three rapid bus routes that run between the City and Belconnen account for 30% of Canberra’s daily bus boardings and are already subject to significant congestion along the Haydon Drive corridor during the AM peak period.

As outlined in our 2023-24 ACT Budget Submission, there are several relatively low-cost interventions that could deliver significant short-to-medium term benefits for public transport users of this corridor, while also laying the groundwork for the future delivery of light rail to Canberra’s largest district.

Here’s how we think Canberra can improve its bus network by finishing the incomplete sections of the Belconnen Transitway along Haydon Drive, and how you can help make it happen!

The planning work has already been done

The idea of providing dedicated lanes for buses along the Belconnen to City corridor has a long history. As mentioned in our previous blog post on Belconnen Light Rail, the early 2000s saw plans drawn up for a Brisbane-style busway between Belconnen and the City, featuring a series of elaborate tunnels and flyovers, and future-proofed for light rail.

Unfortunately, this gold-plated “Belconnen Busway” proposal never made it off the drawing board, after a change of Transport Minister resulted in the funding being redirected to the Majura Parkway.

Despite an ACT Government Minister claiming that a busway would not be built “in their lifetime”, plans for a scaled back series of bus priority measures between Belconnen and the City resurfaced just five years later, in the form of the “Belconnen Transitway” project.

Belconnen to City Transitway Project, from the ACT Government’s Transport for Canberra webpage.

This revised approach did away with the expensive grade-separated infrastructure that was central to the earlier plans, and instead proposed a series of road augmentations to provide space for bus-only lanes and bus “jump” lanes on Marcus Clarke Street, Barry Drive, Belconnen Way, Haydon Drive and College Street, to help buses bypass areas of significant congestion between Belconnen and the City.

As seen above, the Belconnen Transitway project was divided into three sectors:

  • The “Belconnen Sector”, between Eastern Valley Way and Haydon Drive
  • The “Central Sector”, between Haydon Drive and Belconnen Way
  • The “City Sector”, between Barry Drive and Alinga Street

Each of these sectors contained a series of proposed road upgrades to improve bus movements between Belconnen and the City, ranked as short, medium or long term priorities. You can download the full set of concept plans below:

Unlike the fate of its predecessor, parts of the Belconnen Transitway in the “Belconnen” and “City” sectors were actually delivered between 2012 and 2015 as part of “Stage 1” and “Stage 2” of the project.

Belconnen to City Transitway – Stage 1. Base image from ACTmapi.
Belconnen to City Transitway – Stage 2. Base image from ACTmapi.

The ACT Government’s decision to proceed with these sections of the Transitway is largely consistent with the 2011 Options Report prepared by AECOM, which rated the “City Sector” as a “must do”. Other sections, such as the full duplication of College Street and the delivery of bus lanes on Haydon Drive and Belconnen Way, were classified as “later stages”, to be progressed in the medium and long terms.

Ten years later, we think the time has come to finish the job.

It will improve your bus service

Stages 1 and 2 of the Transitway have allowed buses operating between Belconnen and the City to bypass some areas of significant traffic congestion, such as Barry Dive. In theory, this should allow for improved bus reliability and frequency, as reduced journey times mean fewer buses per hour are needed to complete the end-to-end trip.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of these measures has been undercut by ACT Government’s failure to progress any of the “Central Sector” bus priority measures along Haydon Drive, which as shown below, can suffer from significant congestion during the AM peak period, leading to delays of up to eight minutes per bus.

Examples of R2, R3 and R4 bus delays on Haydon Drive during the AM peak, as shown in AnyTrip.

Eight minutes may not seem like a lot, but the ripple effect means that delays on a single corridor shared by multiple bus routes can have significant consequences for services right across the city. This was seen most recently with the Raising London Circuit project, where delays of one to two minutes per bus in the peak periods resulted in swinging cuts to bus frequencies during the middle of the day and late at night, even for routes that didn’t go anywhere near the construction site.

The importance of letting buses bypass the Haydon Drive bottleneck was not lost on the consultants at AECOM, who in 2011 recommended that:

“The most efficient way to protect buses against these increased delays is to supply a bus lane along the entire length of Haydon Drive and Belconnen Way, connecting with the existing bus lane at [the Gungahlin Drive Extension overpass].”

Belconnen to City Transitway Stage 1 and City Bus Services and Facilities Improvement Forward Design – Options Report (AECOM, 2011), page 52.

The modelling done as part of this study concluded that providing bus lanes along Haydon Drive and Belconnen Way would provide travel time savings of 33 per cent for rapid buses travelling east from Belconnen to the City in the AM peak, compared to the “Do Nothing” scenario.

As Canberra continues to grow, making bus journeys faster and more reliable, as well as freeing up network capacity for additional services to new areas such as Ginninderry and Molonglo, will be critical to encouraging more people out of their cars and onto public transport.

It will streamline the future delivery of light rail

The original Belconnen Busway proposal received criticism from all sides. Not just from those who would rather see that money spent on roads, but also from people who believed that its construction would preclude the future delivery of light rail, back when a single kilometre of track seemed like a remote possibility.

Things have changed quite substantially since the early 2000s. Canberra now has a highly successful light rail line operating between Gungahlin and the City, with plans for a future extension south to Woden proceeding, but not nearly as quickly as many would have hoped. A future light rail extension to Belconnen is no longer a pipe dream, but it is still many years away from being realised.

One of the most notable causes of the delays to Light Rail Stage 2 has been the ongoing uncertainty around planning approvals. This is at least partially due to a lack of due diligence early in the project’s development, which has resulted in a significant and growing gap between the delivery of Stage 1 (2019) and construction commencing on Stage 2 (2025+).

As we emphasised in our budget submission, the ACT Government needs to put more resources into planning future light rail lines, so by the time one stage of construction is complete, the next is ready to go. We don’t want to be waiting another seven years between the completion of Stage 2 and construction commencing on Stage 3.

One way we can speed up the delivery of light rail is by planning and delivering smaller enabling projects that would otherwise need to be done as part of the light rail construction. For example, the proposed duplication of Athllon Drive is designed to accommodate future light rail to Mawson and Tuggeranong, with sufficient space being left for future tracks and stations, and proposed gradients and curve radii being suitable for Canberra’s existing fleet of light rail vehicles.

Extracts from the Athllon Drive Duplication Study – Stage 2, Sulwood Drive to Drakeford Drive, Design Option 1 (Cardno, 2019)

As illustrated below, the widening of Haydon Drive as part of the Belconnen Transitway project presents a similar opportunity to future-proof the corridor for light rail, while also benefiting users of the three rapid bus routes in the short to medium term.

Illustration of Haydon Drive in its current form, by PTCBR via Streetmix
Illustration of the proposed Haydon Drive Transitway and bikeway, by PTCBR via Streetmix
Illustration of a possible future “ultimate” arrangement for Haydon Drive, by PTCBR via Streetmix

In the event a future ACT Government decides to pursue a different light rail route to the current preferred option via Belconnen Way and Haydon Drive, the bus lanes can continue to be used by emergency vehicles accessing the future Northside Hospital. But more on that in a moment!

It can be delivered quickly and affordably

The first two stages of the Belconnen Transitway were delivered over a three-year period between 2012 and 2015, at a cost of around $13 million. This was higher than the cost estimates outlined in the 2011 AECOM report, which put the indicative cost of these upgrades at $7.7 million. The price tag for the Haydon Drive and Belconnen Way upgrades was estimated to be just over $4 million.

Due to various constraints in the current infrastructure market, the cost of delivering this project would now be significantly higher. A source with industry knowledge has informed PTCBR that the price tag of delivering the missing sections of the Belconnen Transitway along Haydon Drive would likely come to at least $30 million in 2023 dollars.

Nevertheless, when compared to some of the other road projects being pursued by the ACT Government, such as the $107 million duplication of William Hovell Drive, the $230 million Monaro Highway overpass and the $93 million duplication of Athllon Drive, spending $30 million to cut journey times by 33% on 3 rapid bus routes used by 30% of bus passengers, while also laying the groundwork for Light Rail Stage 3, should be considered an absolute bargain.

It is reasonable to assume that the same market constraints that are causing cost escalations would also result in the missing bus lanes on Haydon Drive taking longer to deliver than the first two stages. This means we don’t have a moment to lose.

It has to be delivered now

As noted earlier, Belconnen is forecast to grow significantly over the next decade, thanks to a combination of new greenfield suburbs in Ginninderry and substantial new infill developments in the Belconnen Town Centre. This will put considerable additional strain on the bus system, which is already being pushed to its limits to accommodate construction-related delays in Canberra’s City Centre.

There are a range of other projects being delivered in this time period which will put further pressure on the Belconnen to City corridor. These include a revitalised Australian Institute of Sport precinct in Bruce and the new Northside Hospital, which will front directly on to Haydon Drive, just north of Belconnen Way.

Preliminary concept for the new Northside Hospital building on Haydon Drive, from the ACT Government’s YourSay webpage. Proposed bus lanes have been added in red for clarity.

With construction on the new Northside Hospital set to start as early as 2025, there is a very limited window within which the Haydon Drive Transitway can be designed and delivered as part of an integrated transport solution for this important community health hub. As evidenced by the poor public transport outcomes associated with the Canberra Hospital Expansion project, a failure to properly plan for safe and convenient access by public transport early in the design phase can produce long-term accessibility challenges.

In short – if we don’t act now, we may lose a significant opportunity to provide genuine transport choice for the thousands of people who will visit, work at, and transit by this critical health precinct every day.

You can help make it happen

With all that said, how do we actually get this project off the ground? Following the release of PTCBR’s budget submission earlier this year, we have discussed our key recommendations with members of the ACT Legislative Assembly from all three major parties. With the exception of one party’s immovable opposition to light rail, the conversations were broadly supportive of PTCBR’s ambitions for better public transport.

In recent weeks, we have had several productive conversations with the ACT Minister for Transport Chris Steel MLA and ACT Greens Spokesperson for Transport Jo Clay MLA about our call to complete the remaining sections of the Belconnen Transitway. Both were very supportive of the proposal.

In a welcome development, representatives from ACT Labor and the ACT Greens have since launched petitions calling for the delivery of the full Belconnen Transitway.

You can sign the petition sponsored by Tara Cheyne MLA, ACT Labor Member for Ginninderra, here:
You can sign Jo Clay MLA, ACT Greens Member for Ginninderra's petition, and read her Assembly motion calling on the ACT Government to deliver the project within 3 years, here:

If you support this proposal, we strongly encourage you to sign both petitions.

Movement from both governing parties on this issue bodes incredibly well for the likely delivery of this important piece of public transport infrastructure, and the future of Canberra’s bus network more broadly.

Watch this space!

UPDATE: A motion committing the ACT Government to deliver this project by October 2028 was passed in the ACT Legislative Assembly with tripartisan support on 1 November 2023. You can read more about it here.