Napthine Blind To East West Flaws by Andrew Herington
The rush to sign a contract for the East West Link has delivered a very poor outcome. The independent Assessment Committee gave the Planning Minister, Matthew Guy plenty of detail about what was wrong with the Linking Melbourne Authority’s design.
Yet, in its blind enthusiasm for the project, the Napthine Government has completely ignored this advice and approved the project with some untested and unhelpful changes.
The flyover at Hoddle St is now called “The Soundwave” in a rebranding seemingly stolen from the script of the ABC satire Utopia. Instead of five ramps through Royal Park west there are now seven. There is a new ground level road along the Moonee Ponds Creek and a new on ramp from Brunswick Rd.
The eastern vent stack has been located in the worst possible location, very close to the Gold St primary school. The inclusion of “vertical gardens” cladding the 30 metre stack will not make the fine particulates being emitted any less polluting.
The Assessment Committee recommended that a supplementary Comprehensive Impact Statement should be prepared to enable a proper consideration of the final project. This won’t happen and detailed maps and design drawings of the final outcome are unavailable.
Other key recommendations from the Assessment Committee that have been ignored include the extension of the tunnel to east of the Clifton Hill rail line, burying of the ramps in Royal Park, reducing the use of cut and cover and relocating the Port Connection to reduce impacts on Flemington and Kensington.
Minister Guy assumed total control over the project in June. He has ploughed ahead with essentially the original design in order to achieve the election deadline for a contract. His rubber stamp will be actively used over the next two weeks to endorse the variations based on the outdated views of the engineers running the Linking Melbourne Authority.
The LMA has failed to comply with the conditions of the Minister’s planning approval. This will be significant when the Supreme Court decides in December whether the planning approval has been legally and validly made. Without a valid planning approval the contract is not worth the paper it has been hastily written on.
The public and the various Councils have had no opportunity to comment on the new elements. The Minister required the preparation of Development Plans for any changes but these were prepared in secret and have not been released.
A special Advisory Panel of public servants was appointed to consider whether these plans complied with the Assessment Committee recommendations. Its conclusions have also not been released and the public were given no opportunity to contribute to the process.
Similarly, the requirement to produce a Property Impact Report has been ignored. This was intended to address the injustice of a narrow project boundary that left scores of families living amidst a huge construction site for five years. Instead the LMA has sent individual letters to selected homeowners, resulting in confusion about why some properties have been offered voluntary acquisition and others left out.
The East West Link remains Australia’s most expensive road by a long margin. The road will cost over $1 million per metre and the estimated cost for all stages remains $18 billion. The first stage cost of $6.8 billion is lower than the original estimate simply because the road is shorter, due to the deferral of the Port connection.
More than half the cost of the East West Link is being paid directly by taxpayers with $2 billion up front from Victoria and $1.5 billion from the Federal Government. This is more than any previous toll road.
The tolls remain a state secret for good reason. The remaining debt of $3.3 billion is guaranteed by the State. To service this debt the toll would need to exceed $10 for the 25 to 30 million vehicles a year forecast to use the tunnel (80-100,000 per weekday).
However the universal experience with interstate toll roads has been that traffic projections have fallen badly short and the owners have gone bankrupt – Sydney’s Lane Cove and Cross City tunnels and Brisbane’s Clem 7 and Airport Link have all crashed.
Because the Victorian Government is the owner of the East West Link, further taxpayer funding will be required to top up toll revenue for the likely shortfall. This means fewer teachers and nurses or higher state taxes and a risk to our credit rating.
Australia’s largest infrastructure project has been approved by a secretive planning process and a legally fragile contract. The Napthine Government has taken short cuts to achieve its political goal of signing before an election but these will cause the deal to rapidly unravel.
The Victorian election in November has become a referendum on this “road with few friends”. Voters across the State will ask themselves why each electorate is foregoing the equivalent of $77 million in order to build another congested inner city freeway, far from where they live. This is money that should be spent on schools, hospitals, public transport and local roads across Victoria.
Andrew Herington is a former Labor Adviser who has been working with community groups opposing the East West Link.