It’s official, Wollongong City Council will stump up the cash needed to keep the Gong Shuttle free.
At their final meeting for the year, most councillors voted to free up an annual amount of $350,000 for the next three years to fund the state government service, as long as the bus route remains free during that time.
During a politically heated debate, a successful motion to do this from Labor councillor David Brown trumped a similar push from Liberal Cameron Walters.
Kicking off the debate, Cr Walters said it was time for the city to come together to save the service and urged the government to reveal official costings.
“This has always been about maintaining the shuttle as a free service,” he said, noting it had been left up to the city to “sort out this mess”.
In the successful motion, Cr Brown said the council had a gun at it’s head to provide the funding but appealed to Premier Gladys Berejiklian, as he would rather the state government continue to fund the full cost.
“Premier, be Santa Claus and fund the Gong Shuttle as a free service,” he said.
“The metaphor is wrong of course - we were enjoying the bus until some Grinch in the transport bureaucracy took it away - we don't want a new present, we want our existing service to stay for evermore.”
Calling the government’s withdrawal of funds from the bus “bloody-handed cost-shifting” he said the council needed to step in as the service was too important to lose.
The move follows an announcement from the University of Wollongong last week, which will contribute $350,000 per year for three years from July 1.
If the figures quoted by Illawarra Parliamentary Secretary Gareth Ward – who stated the shuttle’s total cost was about $3 million a year – are correct, these funds together will be just about enough to keep the bus fare-free.
Mr Ward has repeatedly stated that the government will continue to fund 75 per cent of the service even after the introduction of fares.
However, detailed costing are yet to be provided, and Transport for NSW has not made clear it will accept the money and keep the service free. Unfortunately, the Mercury’s efforts to have this confirmed have so far been rebuffed.
It is also unclear what will happen between January 29 – when the government has said it will start charging fares – and July 2018, when the UOW/council finding will (if accepted) kick in.
Instead of an answer to these questions last week, Transport for NSW sent one line of a statement is has issued numerous times.
“Introducing a standard Opal fare is considered the fairest way of reducing congestion on the Wollongong Shuttle and helping to spread the load across the network.”
During the council’s debate, a number of councillors objected to the idea that local government should step in to pay for a NSW Government service.
Independent Greens councillor Mithra Cox was one those to speak against the funding, however she voted for the final motion.
"We should not be funding this, it is financially irresponsible and politically stupid and handing a gift to Gareth Ward," Ms Cox said, while attempting to point out that Cr Walters works in the office of Mr Ward.
"We have caved so quickly.
"Gareth Ward must be thinking you beauty, that was really easy. This is a dangerous slippery slope of local government funding things that are a state government responsibility."
Agreeing with this sentiment, but also voting to support the council funding – which will total just over $1 million in three years – Tania Brown said the council should match the university's funding, but "maintain the rage" to get the decision overturned.
"We all agree none of us wanted to be in this position," she said.
"This is cost shifting. But that said, the Gong Shuttle is too valuable to our community to lose."
Cr Leigh Colacino successfully suggested that the council write to Ms Berejiklian and Transport Minister Andrew Constance to plead for a stay of execution, asking that the government keep the service free for a further three months.
Independent councillor Dom Figliomeni was the sole councillor to vote against the motion, sticking to his guns that it was not a local government responsibility.