The Illawarra’s Labor politicians have vowed to fight the NSW Government’s “unbelievable” decision to axe the free aspect of Wollongong’s free Gong Shuttle.
Reeling from Wednesday’s announcement from Transport NSW that users will be forced to pay for the service from January next year, Labor’s Illawarra spokesman Ryan Park said the decision would have far-reaching consequences.
“I think this announcement is one of the worst this government has made since 2011,” he said.
“This shuttle works in relieving congestion, in reducing parking problems and in assisting people who are of lower income, particularly students and those unemployed who use it to get around and access important services in the city.”
Mr Park also slammed Premier Gladys Berejiklian for backing away from a promise she made to Wollongong four years ago.
Can I assure you that the Wollongong service will continue forever more.Gladys Berejiklian, 2013
"Can I assure you that the Wollongong service will continue forever more," Ms Berejiklian told the Mercury in 2013 as transport minister, when other free services around Sydney were being axed due to low patronage.
"The reason is, we want to make sure people use services where they're provided and obviously, the Wollongong shuttle has good patronage."
Read more: Get ready to pay to ride the Gong Shuttle
Taking the opposite approach on Wednesday, transport bureaucrats cited the Gong Shuttle’s immense popularity as the reason users will now have to pay.
“The Wollongong Shuttle has attracted on average 3.3 million customers each year for the last five years,” they said.
“However, this has also resulted in complaints of overcrowding while its cost to the taxpayers has continued to grow.”
Standard Opal fares will apply on the route linking Wollongong CBD to the beach, hospital and university from January 29, meaning passengers will pay anywhere between $2.15 and $4.61 for an adult fare.
Read more: Commuters react to fare introduction
Mr Park said the government’s “absurd” justification was “a classic case of Yes Minister”.
“This is simply a decision that makes no commonsense,” Mr Park said.
The popular free shuttle was introduced by Labor’s Transport Minister David Campbell in 2009, designed to alleviate problems with congestion and parking in growing areas of central Wollongong.
“This bus has worked, and this decision is going to make life extremely difficult for people in Keiraville and Gwynneville and for health workers at the hospital and people in the CBD, where parking is a problem,” Mr Park said.
“When major events are on it has meant we can get people in and out of the city, at events like New Year’s Eve we can move people around these difficult precincts – and it has also meant that as our university grows there is relief for people living around those areas.”
Mr Park and Wollongong MP Paul Scully will today kick off a community campaign against the government’s decision to make people pay.
“We’re going to be launching a community campaign against this, because we know that when we stick together we can fight things and win,” Mr Park said.
Asked to explain the logic in axing some free bus services due to low patronage – as was done to several Sydney buses in 2013 – but introducing a fare for Wollongong’s well-patronised bus, state Transport Minister Andrew Constance argued the “service hasn’t changed”.
“[It] will continue to operate for as long as there is a demand,” Mr Constance said.
“Introducing Opal fares means people will pay for the service like most students and commuters do across NSW.”
A transport spokesman said a government survey had shown some commuters are using the free Gong Shuttle instead of a closer paid route.
“Introducing a fare on the Wollongong Shuttle will encourage these customers to make use of the other services available to them, helping to spread the load across these services for the benefit of the entire network,” the spokesman said.
Extra revenue from the fares would be “reinvested in the local network so we can make improvements when and where they are needed”.