The need for an upgrade
A crucial part of Sydney’s motorway network, the Hills M2 Motorway opened to traffic in 1997. The motorway provides a link between the city’s fast growing north-west residential areas and the employment lands in Macquarie Park, North Sydney and the central business district. Hills M2 is a 21 kilometre motorway which is used by around 100,000 vehicles per day including 840 bus services, carrying 27,000 people on their daily commute. The motorway forms a critical link in the Sydney Orbital Motorway network linking the Lane Cove Tunnel and Westlink M7.
The Hills M2 Upgrade of the motorway commenced in January 2011 and is it expected to take two years to complete, with an expected cost of $550 million – to be funded by the road’s owner operator, Melbourne-based international tollroad developer Transurban.
Transurban operates the Pocahontas Parkway in Virginia and is constructing the state’s I-495 Capital Beltway HOT Lanes project. Since 2005, Transurban has owned and managed the Hills M2 motorway, investing substantially in initiatives to reduce congestion and improve travel times. In 2006, the road was partially converted to multi-lane free flow tolling, removing the need for the majority of motorists to stop or move through toll booths. During 2007, an interim third westbound lane was also put in to place while negotiations for a major enhancement were undertaken with the NSW Government.
Originally constructed as a four lane expressway, rapid population growth in the North West, combined with increased interstate freight traffic following the completion of Westlink M7 in 2005 resulted in growing congestion on the corridor necessitating new investment. “The Hills M2 was generally only aimed at being a through motorway that didn’t really have a lot of connectivity to local roads,” says Ian Sinclair, the General Manager of Major Projects at Transurban, “The upgrade to the road embeds it as the key spine within the region’s transport network.”
One step at a time
The Hills M2 Upgrade, due to be completed by early 2013, includes three key stages. “The main component of the project is the construction of a third lane in both directions for 14.5 kilometres of the motorway, however the installation of new access ramps near the fast growing business parks will be a huge boost for local business”, said Craig Greene, Head of the Hills M2.
“The NSW Government and Transurban have been keen to deliver the benefits to the community as early as possible, so we have committed to a staged completion program of these key stages. The two new access ramps will open in advance of widening. Windsor Road in the western section of the motorway will open in the first half of 2012, and Macquarie Park will be finished in the second half of 2012,” said Ian.
These ramps are expected to reduce peak hour congestion at key pinch points on the motorway and the neighbouring network, such as Norwest Boulevard and the Macquarie Park precinct including Epping Road. The Boulevard services a 377ha business park in the region. The region will receive a further boost in coming years following the NSW Government’s commitment to deliver the North West Rail Link, with construction commencing in September.
The scope of the upgrade project has now been expanded to include the conversion of the motorway to fully electronic toll collection. The conversion is a logical progression due to the declining use of cash for payments on the road “less than five per cent of total journeys on the road use cash,” said Craig, “The location of the motorway between two fully electronic roads, Westlink M7 and Lane Cove Tunnel, has seen the proportion of cash payers continue to decline.”
The conversion of the motorway to fully electronic toll collection is a major step. Only the harbour crossings have proceeded down the path of removing cash to date. The Sydney Harbour Tunnel was converted to fully electronic toll collection in 2007 and the bridge followed two years later. Brisbane also removed cash from its motorways last year, leaving only the Eastern Distributor and the M5 with cash from early next year. The change will improve the safety of the operation of the road and keep traffic moving.
What sort of changes to expect
Completion of the upgrade will provide significant benefits for motorists and businesses in the region. With a speed limit of 100 km/h, users of the motorway can expect their journey to be cut in the first year by 15 minutes. However, the benefits will not be limited to motorists using the motorway. Cross regional traffic, and traffic on the neighbouring free routes, will also benefit. It is estimated motorists using the parallel untolled route will have their travel times reduced by seven minutes in the morning peak.
The reduction in congestion on the motorway will increase its attractiveness to traffic currently using local roads, helping to get these vehicles off local streets and improving the amenity of the region. The upgrade of the Hills M2 motorway will improve the road, reducing travel times and improving reliability. In addition, some commuters can choose new routes via the new on/off-ramps that offer lower toll rates.
In return of the $550 million investment in the upgrade work, “The tolls at existing toll points will increase by a one-off 7.7 per cent and the concession for the motorway will be extended by four years. However, the new ramps will be tolled at a low rate consistent with the use of a shorter distance of the motorway,” said Ian.
Challenges of the upgrade
Servicing over 127,000 vehicles and bus patrons per day means the continued operation of the motorway during construction was critical for the project. However, the continued use of the motorway during construction is a major challenge for the project team.
The motorway is the major commuter and public transport link in the region which has meant closures or reductions in capacity need to be minimised during the work, which includes the widening of a tunnel as well as the lengthening, widening and realignment of under and over bridges.
The number of available lanes for commuters has not been reduced; rather the Upgrade team has closed the breakdown lane and used that space as the construction site, allowing the traffic to continue to flow at a slightly reduced work zone speed. “It is critical for us as a customer focused business that we have a minimal impact on the people that use the road every day,” said Craig Greene. The program of work limited the project team to a series of weekend and night closures when major work, such as the excavation of the road pavement for drainage installation, can occur.
While meeting the needs of commuters, the project team also needs to work closely with neighbouring residents and business. The road was built on a tight corridor reservation, with hills, creeks and bushland, “So there is limited land available for access. It was a balancing act – maintaining traffic, maintaining buses, and working a tight corridor close to the community,” says Craig.
Sustainable in more ways than one
Transurban is widely recognised for its focus on sustainability. The business’ approach is based on a four pillar strategy balancing the environment, the community, and the needs of employees as well as the economics of the business.
“The decision of when and how to build new infrastructure, the decision of whether to fund these projects directly or through a user-pays system are all ultimately decisions for government, as is the rate of the toll” said Craig Greene, “In order to support the future of our business model, it is essential we can bring something to the way we do business outside the role of government alone.” Transurban see the commitment to the sustainability of their business practices, including particularly a strong safety culture and the minimisation of impacts on the community and the environment as key planks in that objective. The efforts of the company have been recognised many times including being listed in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes World list (DJSI World) each year from 2006 to 2010. “Some people see it as incongruous that a motorway company should be so focused on sustainability”, said Ian Sinclair, “I actually see it a different way. We are the enabler of our customers, just like our roads connect people with wherever they want to go, so too we allow people to travel by any means of transport such as car, hybrid car, bicycle or public transport. At the end of the day, if we work well with government we can promote integrated and sustainable transport choices.”
But, the challenge of the project is something that the team embraces Ian says “The challenge with a Brownfield project like the upgrade is balancing the environmental outcomes and needs of the community who live next to the road as well as the thousands of people who rely on it to travel. With big projects like this, something you know is that if you get it right thousands of people will benefit for many decades to come.”