After more than 70 years of debate, Australia’s Turnbull Government announced the construction of Western Sydney Airport (WSA), to be located at Badgerys Creek, 50km west of the city’s centre.

The government took control of the project’s development and future airport operations after Sydney Airport Group turned the opportunity down, citing considerable financial risks that they feared would last for decades.

Proposals to build a second airport date back to 1962; in 1999 the preferred location was set at Badgerys Creek.

At present, Sydney Airport is nearing capacity and struggling to accommodate the current demand for flights into and out of the city, even with plans to install state-of-the-art biometric technology for easier processing.

Two independent reports, published in 2012 and 2013, confirmed that Sydney Airport will not be able to accommodate extra flights by 2027 – and by 2060, capacity constraints would cause a A$60bn loss to the economy.

From grassland to international hub

Western Sydney houses more than two million people, almost half of Sydney’s population, and is predicted to grow a further one million by the early 2030s.

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This year’s budget published the details of the project, confirming the government’s equity investment to A$5.3bn in WSA Co., a new Commonwealth-owned company that will manage and operate the new airport.

Early works are already underway to prepare the 1,780-hectare greenfield site at Badgerys Creek, which involves clearing structures from the area and closing down roads. Full construction is planned to start in late 2018, and if everything runs smoothly, airport operations are due to begin by 2026.

At present, Badgerys Creek is home to vegetation including grasslands, cropland, eucalypt woodland and shrubland, as well as a variety of birds, reptiles, bats, frogs and small fish. The site was named as the preferred location for a new airport by a variety of independent studies, due to its proximity to road and rail transport links and its “ideal position to deliver jobs and economic growth for Western Sydney,” according to the project’s website.

An investment of approximately A$180m from the Australian Government is earmarked towards developing a biodiversity offset package for the site and the wider region. The airport site will include a 117-hectare environmental conservation zone.

Developing a 10 million passenger per year airport

Upon completion, WSA will have a 3.7km runway and will be able to handle approximately 10 million passengers per year, similar to the current capacity of Adelaide Airport.

The first stage of development, to be completed by the mid-2020s, will include the construction of terminal and runway areas, as well as cargo facilities, dedicated maintenance areas, a public transport hub, easy-access parking and areas set aside for business parks.

In the longer term, further development works, such as a second parallel runway, will be triggered once demand approaches 37 million passengers annually, which is expected to happen by 2050. Around 2063, the airport is set to accommodate approximately 82 million passengers every year.

The budget also addressed transport around Western Sydney – to include access to and from the airport – and mentions road and transport linkages attracting a total funding of $A70bn between 2013-14 and 2020-21.

In June, Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced a new fast metro rail service will link the new Western Sydney Airport with the rest of the city.

Big rewards involve big risks

The proposal has gone down fairly well in public opinion polls. A survey of Western Sydney voters, commissioned by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, found that 56% of voters were in favour of the airport, with a further 25% reportedly neutral about it. Only 11% of those polled were against the project.

One of its biggest selling points, actively promoted by the government, is the creation of jobs in the area.

The airport promises to generate around 20,000 direct and indirect jobs in Western Sydney by the early 2030s: 2,660 in the peak year of construction activity; 8,730 in airport operations; and an additional 4,440 on-site business park jobs.

“The airport promises to generate around 20,000 direct and indirect jobs in Western Sydney.”

By 2060, the figure rises to 60,000 direct jobs and A$1.5bn  in value added to the Western Sydney region.

Despite the predicted economic boom that will be generated in and around the airport, Sydney Airport Group used their Right of First Refusal, turning down the opportunity to develop and operate WSA. This allows the Australian Government to develop and operate the airport itself, which it promised to do “without delay”.

Writing in The Australian, Brendan Lyon, chief executive of Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, pointed out that “government-procured major projects routinely cost about 30% more than privately financed ones,” and warned that “the Commonwealth needs to be very awake to the many complex engineering, construction, design, operational, revenue and other business risks it’s taking on.”

Protecting the Blue Mountains

One of the key issues to surface from public consultations on the project is WSA’s potential impact on the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, a 1.03 million hectare site of sandstone plateaux, escarpments and gorges dominated by temperate eucalypt forests, which at its closest point is only 7km away from the airport.

In 1999, UNESCO initially refused to include the Blue Mountains area on its heritage sites list, due to plans to construct a second airport at Badgerys Creek, but changed its decision a year later, after the government withdrew the proposal.

The Mayors of City of Blue Mountains and City of Blacktown have recently expressed their opposition to the plan, citing a “grossly inadequate” final environmental impact statement (EIS), ahead of organising a ‘Western Sydney Airport Exposed’ public forum in July.

The project’s final EIS, however, has found that “operation and construction will not have a significant impact on the Greater Blue Mountains Area” and promises to take into account the government’s protection plan for the area. It assures that the height of aircraft from ground level will not impact the heritage site’s key tourist attractions.

Some of these issues were discussed during the first meeting of the Forum on Western Sydney Airport on 26 May, which was seen as an important “next step” towards the airport’s delivery.

The plan is expected to quickly move forward following this spring’s announcements.

In a jubilant speech on 29 June, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull singled out WSA as a “great example” of driving jobs and growth, saying: “Plenty of governments have talked about it. My government is delivering it. My government is building the airport.”