NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley visited Wollongong on Saturday to pledge his support for a free Gong Shuttle service, though not everyone was impressed.
It comes just over two weeks since Transport for NSW delivered a media release announcing Opal fares would apply on the city-loop service from January next year.
Mr Foley was joined by Keira MP Ryan Park and Member for Wollongong Paul Scully at a bus stop on Burelli Street, and vowed to keep the service at nil cost to passengers should Labor win government at the 2019 election.
“There’s so much more governments can do for this great region. In the bi-election 12 months ago I spoke about our vision: jobs-generating projects for young people in the Illawarra, rebuilding TAFE, expanding the convention and exhibition centre [WIN Entertainment Centre],” Mr Foley said.
“My message to people in the Gong is I’ve heard you, hang on, help is on its way.”
However Parliamentary Secretary for the Illawarra Gareth Ward wasn’t buying it and labelled Mr Foley’s visit as a popularity “stunt”, noting Labor voted against other big issues in the region such as the Albion Park Rail bypass.
“There’s lots of other electorates who would want a free service,” he said. “When something is free for so long, people are understandably going to be disappointed.”
Mr Ward has written to key stakeholders Wollongong City Council and the University of Wollongong to chip in to keep help the service free in a scheme similar to Newcastle. He said he may make the recommendation to council to use parking meter revenue to put back into the service.
The bus bombshell has sparked an outpouring of community anger across the Illawarra – and beyond. Thousands of free bus supporters have already signed a hard-copy petition fighting the changes, while hundreds of people sent a “Save Our Free Bus” chant echoing through Wollongong’s Crown Street Mall last week.
Mr Scully said he’d heard a range of concerns from angry Illawarra residents such as not being able to afford other forms of transport, the service was the only practical way to get to Wollongong Hospital and events at the WIN Entertainment Centre would be a “nightmare” to get to.
The shuttle bus has maintained good patronage since it was introduced by the then Labor government, led by Nathan Rees, in 2009. Its immense popularity was cited by transport bureaucrats as the reason why users would have to pay.
Transport for NSW said the number of commuters using the free shuttle, which costs about $3 million a year to operate, had “resulted in complaints of overcrowding while its cost to the taxpayers has continued to grow”.