Can Spring Street deliver on transport plan?

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The Age: Can Spring Street deliver on transport plan? (December 29, 2008)

In the first 24 hours after its release, the Victorian Transport Plan received generally positive coverage. However, the combination of a bad week on Melbourne’s road and rail networks plus a closer examination of the detail of the plan has led to significant criticism.

Some of that criticism has come from the usual suspects in the public transport lobby who would have condemned the plan if it contained a cent of road funding. In fact, the funding balance between road and rail is not the problem.

Its credibility suffers from three factors: the muddled way it was developed; its reliance on uncommitted federal funding; and the fact that after nine years in office this Government is running out of trust.

The plan’s development began when the Government’s 2006 transport plan, Meeting our Transport Challenges, needed a mechanism to keep the possibility of an east-west road tunnel off the agenda until Labor had held off the Greens’ challenge to its inner-urban seats at the 2006 state and 2007 federal elections.

Proposing a study achieved the political aim. But the appointment of high-profile chairman Rod Eddington and the growing significance of transport congestion as a political issue meant the East-West Needs study ended up with a significance way beyond that originally intended.

Yet, as a Melbourne-wide transport solution, the study was always going to fail, as Eddington was only able to deal with part of the jigsaw. An obvious example was his inability to consider the merits of linking the Eastern Freeway at Bulleen with the Ring Road at Greensborough, even though this project could well be an alternative to the inner road tunnel.

The Bulleen-Greensborough concept emerges in the Transport Plan, but only for belated study, and it is unclear whether it is regarded as an alternative to the inner tunnel.

To balance his support for a road tunnel, Eddington threw up the equally expensive metro-style rail tunnel from Footscray to Caulfield, the first half of which has been incorporated in the latest plan. Again one has to wonder whether it would have been proposed in this way if Eddington had been given a Melbourne-wide brief.

When it comes to bidding for federal funds, Victoria can argue it should be rewarded for the fact that it runs a far more efficient transport operation than the shambles in NSW.

Yet Premier John Brumby has pointed to Eddington’s dual roles, as chairman of Infrastructure Australia and progenitor of the local plan, as reasons for confidence. It is just as likely that Eddington will show his impartiality by not favouring Melbourne and, as almost a third of the plan is predicated on federal funds, the Premier is almost certainly showing more optimism than is realistic.

Finally, there is the issue of the costings in the plan, and whether the Government can be trusted to deliver them. This Government damaged its credibility on transport projects when, in 1999, it promised fast trains to regional centres for $80 million. The final cost was close to $1 billion. Ironically, the Government is now being accused of inflating costs to make public transport projects appear less attractive than they actually are.

The Government can hardly complain about public cynicism when it has put projects such as electrification to South Morang in and out of plans for the past nine years, and radically varied project costs.

Of course, circumstances change. Five years ago few people were predicting the boom in public transport patronage that Melbourne has experienced; five months ago few predicted we might see petrol prices below $1 a litre again. In the current financial environment, developing a project as a public-private partnership might be challenging; it might become attractive in the time-span of the plan.

While much of the Victorian Transport Plan is sensible, Victorians will judge the Government on what is delivered. And voters can be contrary. While public transport activists love to highlight Perth as their ideal city, West Australian voters clearly had a different view of the government that delivered a supposed public transport nirvana when they voted it out in September.

Richard Allsop is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. He was chief of staff to the ministers for transport in the Kennett government.

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