Light Rail

Australians Want Light Rail Contractor to Quit Climate Crusade, Get Back to Building Overbudget, Overdue Light Rail Line

The Spanish firm Acciona greenwashes a troubled light rail extension.


Sydney light rail
Giovanni Gagliardi/

As nauseating as corporate-sponsored celebrity climate-change videos can be, they are rarely the target of political outrage. Not so for the Spanish firm Acciona's clip featuring the Australian actor Liam Hemsworth (of Hunger Games fame) plugging the company's role in building "sustainable solutions in infrastructure" and asking us all to think about how we might invest in the planet.

After Acciona shared the 30-second video on its Facebook page this past week, it got a sharp rebuke from politicians and media in Sydney, Australia, who would prefer that Acciona drop the climate crusade and stick to its day job: building Sydney's overdue, overbudget light rail extension.

"Instead of finishing the job which is causing mayhem in Sydney's [Central Business District], they've decided to throw money into the celebrity-backed campaign," writes radio host Alan Jones. "They should just get on with it like most reputable contractors do," a spokesperson for New South Wales Transport and Infrastructure Minister Andrew Constance tells The Daily Telegraph.

The rage is understandable. Acconia's stewardship of Sydney's light rail extension—on which it is the primary construction contractor—has been less than stellar.

The new 7.5-mile line the company is building out from Sydney's downtown to the southeastern suburbs of Randwick and Kingsford was initially supposed to be finished this year at the cost of AU$1.6 billion.

Costs have since spiraled up to AU$2.1 billion—the project's critics say the price tag could reach AU$3 billion—and the completion date has been pushed back to March 2020.

Acciona blames these blown budgets and deadlines on the New South Wales provincial government, claiming it failed to adequately inform the company of extensive utility work that would need to be done. The company is now suing the government for $1.1 billion.

Government officials have pointed the finger right back at the company, describing Acciona's lawsuit as "absurd" and their work as "slow-go."

All the while, businessesin the construction zone have suffered revenue drops of as much as 30 percent, prompting some to close down. Many of the ones that have managed to stay open lease space from the local government, which has increased rents and electricity rates to cover the costs of the construction.

You can see why lots of Sydney business owners and taxpayers find Acciona's climate rhetoric less than compelling.

But the company's real mistake was not in trying to justify a late and expensive project by trying to appeal to a city's environmental conscience. Acciona's mistake was not trotting out the global warming guns until its project was already off the rails.

Here in the United States, a grab bag of reasons are unfailingly invoked to justify the expansion of cities' urban rail networks, from implausible claims about congestion relief to claims that they will bring "racial justice." Never far from the top are promises that the new investment will cut carbon emissions, thus bettering the environment.

These arguments have been proffered in support of light rail projects from Los Angeles and Nashville. The claims are questionable—the Cato Institute's Randal O'Toole has found that most urban rail projects increase carbon emissions—but they help cement in the public imagination the idea that light rail is a public virtue from the get-go.

Thus, when the inevitable cost overruns and schedule delays appear, or when promises about boosted transit ridership and congestion relief prove illusionary, any discontent can be discounted against the projects' purported planet-healing potential.

Acciona made the mistake of reversing this tried-and-true formula, and now it's being panned for it.