AUSTRALIA:Sydney's Tunneling

December 13, 1999

AUSTRALIA:Sydney’s Tunneling

Originally published in issue 44 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Nov 1999.

Subjects:tunnels sydney

Facilities:Eastern Distributor ED Cross City Tunnel M5-E tunnel

Agencies:RTA Airport Motorway Limited Leighton

Locations:Sydney Australia

Sponsoring the ED is Airport Motorway Limited, a private company owned about two-thirds by the Macquarie Infrastructure Group, a public investment fund administered by the Macquarie investment bank. Leighton Contractors and Maunsell engineers have most of the remainder of the shares. No taxpayer money is involved except for land which remains state owned. Airport Motorway Limited can toll the ED for 48 years in return for their $450m investment.

Existing traffic is appalling. Link speed maps produced by the state’s Roads & traffic Authority (RTA) show speeds in the AM and PM peaks, and also in the business hours in between, on the major routes south of the CBD in the lowest levels of service – colors red, orange and yellow meaning they average 0-15km/h, and 16-25km/h, with a few 26-35km/h. By comparison with 25mins to 50mins now, if the new airport motorway can be managed for free flow conditions at its posted 80km/hr the trip should be 12mins. Tolls will be $2 cars, commercial vehicles $4 (all $s in TRnl are US$s rounded) levied northbound only, the reverse of the matching Sydney Harbor/Tunnel toll which is southbound.

The Eastern Distributor (ED) project is 5km in length, 2km of 2x3-lanes and 3km of 2x2-lanes. The northern end of the ED starts next to the Art Gallery of NSW in the Domain Gardens where the Cahill Exwy that collects traffic from the Harbor Bridge and Tunnel currently dumps traffic onto a one-way pair of local surface streets in Woolloomooloo A large new landscaped forecourt in front of the gallery extends over the top of the transition from the Cahill Exwy to the ED, part of a late compromise (that saw the concession rewritten to raise the tolls 35c) to overcome the last obstructive objections to the project. Immediately east of the fringe of the CBD, the ED goes as 2x3 lanes in the open for 1.3km, then for 1.7km in a doubledeck tunnel cut into the sandstone up to 23m (75') below the trendy Taylor Square area of Darlinghurst. Towards its southern end the tunnel splits twice at both levels to send one lane each direction and these ramp tubes then split again underground into roads heading east (Moore Park Rd) and southeast (Anzac Pde) to serve major surface arterials to the eastern subsurbs. The main 2x2-lanes roadway emerges from a southern portal and continues along South Dowling Street in a mix of trench and cut-&-cover tunnel a further 3km. Of that 2.25km is deeply depressed, sheer walled on the residential side and elegantly landscaped in a stepped section on the parkside, while this ‘parkway’ section also has a bit of cantilver cover and two full lids of 600m and 150m. The ED then connects to 3.5km of the Southern Cross Drive, a 1970s 2x2-lane motorway alongside golf courses that completes the new high quality route to the airport.

The tunnel is said to be one of the world’s largest doubledeckers. The second deck is built of virtually square section prestressed prefabricated concrete planks 2.4m x 0.6m spanning from 10m to as much as 22m where the tunnel splays outward for the underground split. They are laid on benches or lintels carved in the sandstone, and 150mm of concrete is poured atop the planks for the top deck. It has fire escape and service stairways every 120m, 46 ceiling hung jet-fans for moving air, adjustable lighting, and half height 2m high pale yellow vitreous enameled 1.5mm steel paneling on the sides. Except for a short 10m section of igneous intrusion which needed full steel frame and concrete, the tunnel is the unfaced sandstone secured with rockbolts 5m to 9m long. Ptroject manager Flan Cleary told us during a walkthrough of the near traffic-ready tunnel that apart from finding an unmapped high voltage undergound power main that they managed to avoid cutting it was a “no surprises” project. Buildings above were fully instrumented to measure any settlement and owners indemnified against damage. The tunnel was excavated with roadheaders and some drilling and blasting.

Total project cost is $450m with construction by Leighton Contractors costing $355m for 25 lane-km of roadway ($14m/lane-km), the project opening after 28mths, 8 months ahead of schedule. There’s another half year of work on roads used to take traffic during main construction including connector ramps to William Street the main boulevard to the inner city nightlife area of Kings Cross – familiar to hundreds of thousands of US Vietnam vets who spent ‘R&R’ there – and downsizing of local surface roads and streetscape improvements. The whole project is built to high architectural and noise containment standards with textured and integrally colored wall paneling on retaining walls and portals. Two nondescript vent towers at each end of the tunnel blend into local buildings. Walling, rails, lighting and planting is Parisian in quality. It probably had to be because this is a roadway inserted into the middle of the ‘Loo, Darlinghust and right alongside Paddington, Sydney’s Georgetown, or Nob Hill.

Holy Alliance of Yuppies & Tollsters

The project is a political triumph in a city where most conventional freeway type projects have been defeated. It took the creation of a holy alliance between residents and tollsters, residents keen to get rid of through-traffic jamming local streets and excited by the prospect of having improved local accessibility, widened landscaped footpaths and pedestrian street life, while the tollsters gain a constricted roadway system above that provides assurances that they will get the through traffic to toll. Pro-transit groups were enlisted to support the project with the promise of dedicated bus lanes on surface streets, and bicycle groups with new bike lanes. One-way streets without any parking allowed are being made two-way, narrowed, and with parking permitted. The RTA and Airport Motorway had the full panoply of public meetings, top streetscape designers, modelers and artists representations commisioned, a spacious project office in a large trailer. They met objections jointly with a mix of PR and real redesign as the project unfolded.

Walking this splendid new facility shortly before opening makes plain the differences between US AASHTO/FHWA and an investor-built/inner city project. Main lane width is 3.5m (11’6), there are breakdown bays not continuous shoulders, 4.6m clearance overhead. It has full CCTV coverage for a small control center overlooking the main toll plaza at the project’s north end. Minimalist design scale may have been taken too far at the toll plaza where there are only 7 toll lanes for the 3 travel lanes in a 4 and 3 split configuration, and 2 toll lanes on a William St ramp plaza. The plaza design was “all the toll plaza space we could get,” according to one official.

For now the ED will collect tolls with toll collectors and coin machines only, and on the old rule of thumb of 3 toll lanes/travel lane could run into plaza congestion. But Airport Motoway Ltd has a contract with Kapsch (the Vienna based successor to Bosch) to install an electronic toll (ET) system but implementation awaits RTA’s move to ET on the Sydney Harbor Bridge and Tunnel. RTA announced it had selected Q-Free of Norway, but although a year has passed, no contract has been signed.

ET Incompatibility

The Australians are learning some of the shortcomings of the so-called CEN ‘standard’ for 5.8GHz ET. Q-Free implements CEN differently from the Saab/Cegelec/Philips/Kapsch group which in early 1996 adopted specifications called GSS. Q-Free says its readers can be adapted with extra signaling protocols to identify the tag type, and to then read GSS tags as well as Q-Free tags. But GSS readers won’t be able to read Q-Free tags. The RTA is taking its time, wrestling with the need for interoperability within the CEN ‘standard.’ The ED operators won’t move on ET until the state agency has sorted out the issue.


Crown and Palmer Sts, the one-way signalized pair that the ED will supersede through the ‘Loo have been carrying over 80k veh/day and South Dowling St 70k with two other parallel surface routes packed at 25k each. Southern Cross Drive, the existing motorway section at the airport end carries 80k. Anzac Pde and Moore Pk Rd with a ramp to the tunnel currently run 40k and 24k veh/day. Tolls daily (one direction) on the ED were forecast by Symonds Travers Morgan and Sinclair Knight Merz at 33k/day for an end-00 opening, 42k 02, 55k 07 and 57k 11. Of these numbers the split is 2/3 from the airport, 1/3 from local and eastern suburbs ramps entering the tunnel..

The numbers represent a quite high diversion rate to the toll facility but seem realistic given the tight chokepoints being built to prevent traffic using the free local streets. A business plan presented in a Macquarie bank prospectus shows debt service absorbing most of the operating surplus until 2017 but then with the debt paid off, a huge rise in equity dividends to well over $100m/yr from 2018 through 2047.

Cream from M5-E and CCT

Two developments since the forecasting will add extra traffic to the ED. West of the Airport the RTA has begun work on the M5-East, and the state govt has advanced plans to build a Cross City Tunnel (CCT) under William St with ramps to the ED. M5-E is being built with tax money this 8.5km 2x2-lane motorway involves twin tunnels 4km long and 500m under the river on the airport boundary. Opposition to residential acquisition and to use of creeklands and a park forced the project underground half its length. Work on the tunnels started Feb 99. Ground conditions are more difficult than on the ED, but the contract price for the whole 8.5km was $490m for 34 lane-km, about the same $14m/lane-km as the ED. To the west the existing M5 motorway owned by Interlink is running traffic at around 65k veh/day.

A project manager for the M5-E told us RTA expects 60k veh/day on opening. It will connect the M5 with the Southern Cross Drive (90k veh/day) on the southern boundary of the airport, and hence complete the southern and eastern sides of what is planned as a box-shape ‘Sydney Orbital’ road system. M5-E is currently scheduled to open in -04, but many expect the project to slip because of budgetary limits and possible tunneling problems.

The state Labor government is committed to starting work early -01, after the Olympic Games, on an east-west Cross City Tunnel, extending from the southwest corner of the CBD under the city and its underground rail lines 2km (6550') to Kings Cross where it will plug into an existing short 250m tunnel. 2x2-lanes partly in separated tubes, partly double-decked, this is aimed to relieve congestion on surface streets and to allow more green time for the many buses running on north-south streets. It will go under William Street but above the ED tunnel. Ramps for two movements between the CCT and ED tunnel will be built - eastbound CCT to ED-south, and its reverse, ED-north to CCT-west. These are extensions of the ramps to surface William St now being built by Airport Motorway.

The current NSW state Labor party premier Bob Carr is, of all things, an American history buff and Franklin Roosevelt fan. He’s also an old colleague and friend of your editor. Back in the early 1980s when Carr was only a journalist visiting the US on some State Dept junket he and I had a pleasant day’s drive to Hyde Park NY to visit the FDR estate and museum. Like Roosevelt Carr is an activist centrist politician with a populist streak, and he came to power in Sydney four years ago promising, among other things, to abolish tolls on the investor-built M4 and M5 motorways which serve marginal-Labor electorates in the west and southwest. In office he found it was going to cost too much to buy the investors out of their concessions and instead instituted a cash-back system under which private users of these two toll roads can apply for a govenrment refund on their tolls. This is costing NSW taxpayers $20m/yr. The toffs from the North Shore using the M2 toll road and the Harbor Bridge/Tunnel get no similar Carr largesse! Now Cash Back Carr’s govt are proposing the Cross City Tunnel as a government toll project to cost $260m and a toll of $1.60 with exclusive electronic tolling. It is unclear whether it will be built by the RTA or a special purpose toll authority selling bonds.

There’s strong lobbying too for an early start on the M2-East or Lane Cove Tunnel to link the eastern end of the north shore M2 or Hills toll motorway to the Gore Hill Freeway which leads down to the Harbor Bridge and Tunnel. A Lane Cove Tunnel Action Coalition of about 20 local councils and neighborhood groups has placards along jammed Epping Road, Lane Cove advocating construction. The Carr Government has established an M2-Epping Rd Task Force of local officials to see if a scheme can be hatched. The M2 motorway owners, Hills Motorway have proposed that the project be treated as an extension of their toll road. They would invest c$350m in the 4.4km project that involves 3.3km of 2x3 lanes tunnel, a new bridge and approaches over Lane Cove River and some contribution to widening the Gore Hill Fwy and to ramps to the Pacific Hwy. Tolls would be collected at the existing mainline plaza on the M2 and on ramps at the river.

Further gaps in the Sydney motorway network include north-south legs, and a connection of the Sydney-Newcastle Fwy (F3) which at its southern end presently feeds into the Pacific Hwy a 4-lane signalized arterial that carries 60k to 70k veh/d at 30km/hr in peaks and 40km/hr through business hours. An F3-M2 Link under Turramurra is another possible toll tunnel project. An earlier project is a Western Sydney Orbital road linking the three east-east motorways M5, M4 and M2. 39km in length (including an eastward bending portion to the end of the M2) this 2x2-lanes motorway would be built in lightly developed country in the style of a rural highway in a right-of-way 80m to 160m wide and would have a wide median and extensive planting. The terrain is gently undulating and there are no serious water-crossings – about as simple a road as you get. They estimate it’ll cost $520m ($3.3m/lane-km). Permitting is under way but no decision on whether it will need toll-based bonds or if tax money will fund it.

Tollsters Thrive

M4 and M5 are making good profits for their investors. M4, the oldest has recently completed widening to 2x3 lanes. M5, that is privately held, recently saw half its equity change hands at three times the price it commanded five years ago. It has widened its road to its eastern end, partly in anticipation of the opening of the RTA’s M5-East connection to the airport. They’re also proud of a small innovation they’ve implemented at their unmanned ramp plazas. They were plagued by motorists, especially truckers sailing up to the toll plaza and saying they had no money. They now have toll machines there with coin basket, self-swipe credit card reader, bill changer, and – here’s the innovation – a system to photograph both sides of the drivers license. And it issues an invoice for mail-in of the toll. They say it has almost eliminated those “No Moneys.”

M2 investors were advised by much of the Sydney press to sell their stock in the first few months after the opening of the toll road in May 1997. It isn’t breaking even yet but traffic is growing strongly. It rose 35% in the first year and 11% in its second so it is now taking 64k tolls/day, near forecasts. It now has morning peak congestion problems at its mainline plaza. It is also working to improve safety in its tunnel. No serious smashes there, but a few disruptive rear-enders, and the potential for worse. They’re beefing up the lighting, because on a short tunnel like this one (450m) drivers won’t take off their sunglasses. Occasionally the toll road has backups from the toll plaza right into the tunnel in the AM peak. They’ve got a variable message sign to warn of that, But Clive Cutler has a suggestion for tunnel designers: “Curve it, either horizontally or vertically.” So motorists get a shot at seeing more than a single car ahead in heavy traffic, and get more warning of cars ahead stopping..

M2 has had the occasional interference problem with the AT/Comm electronic toll equipment, especially the lower frequency used in the uplink. The latest which had a ramp plaza thoroughly scrambled for several days was traced to a baby monitor in a house nearby. But the most serious weakness of the AT/Comm design is its reliance on a set of AA batteries, which need replacement every 6 months or so. M2 will eventually phase out the AT/Comm system in favor of a 5.8GHz CEN system for interoperability with other toll facilities in the Sydney area. The M2 has been a boon for bus service in the area. The time savings of 20 to 30mins by using the motorway have spawned unsubsidized private bus express service to North Sydney and the City that operators said allowed them to increase their ridership 4-fold.


Australia’s federal government is introducing a Canadian style general sales tax (GST) of 10% mid-year that is worrying toll agencies. Adding 10% to tolls will make for some awkward toll prices, at least for coin machines and toll attendants. Take the M2 with an A$2.50 toll. A$2.75 is very awkward in part because Australia has the decimal coin range of 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c but no quarter. It’s a minimum of 4 coins–a $2, 50c, 20c, 5c – but in practice usually more coins. Normally Australian coin machines aren’t set to take 5c coins. They’ll probably go to A$3.00 but will take some political heat for ‘profiteering’ from the GST.

They Love Those Signals

Australia’s leading city has a Roads & Traffic Authority (RTA) that boasts the most extensive and ‘advanced traffic management system’ in the world, with over 300 CCTV cameras for traffic surveillance, pavement sensors all over, and round the clock management of 3,000 intersections to optimize signal times. It needs this, because of its tiny urban motorway network. It manages large volumes of traffic on signalized arterials – several of these 4-lane roads run average point flows 60k to 100k vehs/day. But at very low speeds.

Average AM peak hour speeds on seven major routes in Sydney according to the RTA are 30km/hr (19mph), better than Bangkok to be sure, but way worse than any US or Canadian city. America’s prize congestion city Los Angeles bemoans average peak time speeds of 56km/hr (35mph). TTI data show that American congestion in large cities reduces average peak traffic speeds about 40% and 10% below free flow speed. Sydney’s congestion reduces speeds 70% below free flow speed!

With pop 4m metro Sydney has over 2.5m motor vehicles, but only unconnected radial motorways and is probably 10 years from having a real network. American cities of half the size of Sydney (such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore) have more than twice its road capacity. Kevin Ford, a roads lobbyist in Sydney, told us the explanation has been quite simple: “Labor governments are heavily influenced by the labor unions and environmentalists who oppose roads, while conservative governments traditionally give the transport department to the rural ‘Country Party’ in their coalition, so the bulk of the road funds would go to country roads.” [Which reminds that the Australian senate in the 1960s was home to a colorful city senator from Melbourne, Patrick Kennelly who affected a terrible stutter whenever he was warning the Senate of the special interests served by an country area opponent whom he characterized as a “count-, count-, count-, ry member.”] A bootlegger/Baptist alliance of cow cockies and greens starved the cities of funds in a political system of weak local governance.


Australia does ITS (Intelligent Transport Systems) a lot more seriously than the US. Instead of one overhyped demonstration program after another leading to zilch, they actually do something useful. Around Melbourne most parking buildings have a variable message sign you can read from 100 yards away telling you how many parking spaces are vacant. Instead of variable message signs on highways telling you there is slow traffic ahead they tell you estimated travel times. And grade intersections are better handled, either with free-flow roundabouts or with signals that don’t leave you stopped when there is no cross traffic. But Australia is also a case study in the limits of signal optimization. It only helps share the green time better at intersections when there’s unused green time to share around. Sydney is passing the point on many at-grade roads where traffic responsive signal systems are of any value, so great is the overload for many hours per day. The signals default to fixed timing for long periods! (Contacts Flan Cleary Airport Motorway, David Harrison Macquarie Bank 61 2 8232 333, Kevin Ford 61 2 9416 7625, Clive Cutler M2 Tollaust 61 2 9869 4444, Dorothy Ferry RTA data 61 2 9662 5749, John Gardiner Interlink M5 61 2 9820 0071)

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