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A 2.1-km P3 tunnel in Sydney, Australia, is causing massive headaches for the New South Wales government. Intense pressure from motorists, the opposition and other critics has forced the state government to release 30,000 pages of documents related to the construction, financing, operation and maintenance of the Cross City Tunnel.

The Cross City Tunnel, opened on Aug. 28, 2005, links Darling Harbour to Rushcutters Bay in Sydney at a cost of CAN$584 million. Cross City Motorway, the private operator, soon announced a three-week toll-free period because initial traffic was so low. The company forecast initial usage at 35,000 vehicles per day, increasing to 90,000 vehicles daily after one year. After the free toll period was lifted, 27,000 vehicles per day were using the tunnel. It will revert to public ownership in 2030.

Shortly after the tunnel was opened, criticism came from all quarters. Downtown business owners complained that due to changes in street directions and lane capacity, permanent road closures and increased congestion, shoppers were staying away. The street changes were part of the deal that Cross City Motorway struck with the state government to redirect traffic to the tunnel.

Motorists have complained that new signage is deceptive because it indicates that the tunnel is the only route to get to other major roads like Sydney Harbour Bridge. In response to the signage, motorists’ groups have published alternate routes to cross the city without using the new tunnel.

The public is miffed because the toll – CAN$3.06 with the electronic tolling device or CAN$4.43 without it – is high compared to other toll roads and bridges in Sydney, and motorists are being charged for both directions even if they only use it to go one way.

The public is also concerned about how exhaust is being vented from the tunnel. There is a single 60-metre ventilation stack that concentrates vehicle emissions, causing concern among citizens who live close to the tunnel exhaust.

Due to public concerns, the state government was considering altering the traffic plans to alleviate congestion and public outcry. However, lawyers on all sides advised that changes to traffic flow affecting volume in the tunnel could trigger damages so large that it would be better for the government to buy out Cross City Motorway’s contract. If that happened, the government would be liable for the tunnel cost and any anticipated future profits of Cross City Motorway, which are estimated at CAN$1.7 billion.

(With notes from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Oct. 20, 2005)