East West Link: $6.8bn road is ‘great value for money’, says Denis Napthine

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The Guardian: East West Link: $6.8bn road is ‘great value for money’, says Denis Napthine. Oliver Milman Tuesday 30 September 2014

Victorian government tries to downplay concerns over 6.6km toll road, unveiling details of green spaces and noise-reduction elements

The controversial East West Link project in Melbourne has been given a final price tag of $6.8bn, and the Victorian government has unveiled details of new green spaces and noise-reduction elements in a bid to downplay concerns over its impact.

Denis Napthine, the Victorian premier, said the 6.6km road would be “great value for money” for state taxpayers, who would foot $2bn of the total cost. The federal government has committed $1.5bn, while a Lend Lease-led consortium, which will build and operate the project, will pay the rest, around $3.3bn.

The state government has pressed ahead with the contentious project, which will link the Eastern Freeway with CityLink in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, despite three legal challenges.

The latest, led by protester Anthony Murphy, failed to stop the signing of the East West Link contact by the government on Monday. Labor has said it will look to overturn the contract if it wins power in the November state election.

Napthine revealed further details of the project on Tuesday, showing off designs for the dual 4.4km tunnels that will bore 55 metres beneath the Melbourne General Cemetery, Princes Park and Royal Park.

A project brochure states the road will have “refined and elegant urban design”, with a new “sound tube 2.0” to encase one of the overpasses to reduce noise for residents, who will be confronted by a myriad of on and off ramps.

Ventilation structures will be used as “living green walls” to minimise the visual impact of tearing up part of Royal Park for the road. The western side of the tunnel will be “integrated into the hillside” and revegetated, while an expanded wetland system will be put in place under the ramps to provide habitat for local birds and wildlife.

Foot and cycle paths will run alongside the roads. The government said this would improve access to areas including Melbourne Zoo, which will sit close to a nest of new traffic ramps and the tunnel itself.

Despite these new details, ministers would not commit to releasing the entire business case, which shows the full benefits, or otherwise, of the East West Link, and declined to say how much motorists would pay to access the toll road.

Napthine said the project would ease traffic congestion and create around 3,700 jobs.

“It will be a game-changing project for Melbourne and Victoria. It’s a project of state-wide, Australia-wide and international significance,” he said.

“It will save businesses thousands and thousands of dollars, tradies will spend more time on the job rather than in congestion, people will be able to leave home later in the morning to go to work and spend more quality time with their families.”

Two councils, Yarra and Moreland, are taking legal action against the project, claiming that the planning process hasn’t been properly followed. Labor has said it will not defend this challenge if it comes to power, claiming that legal advice it has received shows that the project’s contract would be invalid if the court challenge succeeds.

A key question is the amount of compensation that the consortium would be entitled to if the contract is torn up by Labor.

Michael O’Brien, the state treasurer, refused to confirm the specific contractual penalty that would be paid by taxpayers, but said it would cost the state “billions of dollars” if the project didn’t go ahead.

O’Brien accused Daniel Andrews, the Labor leader, of being “reckless” and harmful to Victoria’s reputation by refusing to honour the contract.

Critics of the project claim the government has rushed the contract despite being just two months away from an election. The Coalition did not make any commitment to build the road before the last election and has not released a cost-benefit analysis to support its decision to go ahead with the project, which is one of Australia’s largest infrastructure programs in history.

The government states the East West Link will cater for up to 120,000 vehicles by 2031 and reduce travel times, although the modelling for these assumptions is disputed.

Prof Richard Tomlinson, chair in urban planning at the University of Melbourne, said the government was appeasing lobby groups rather than helping Melbourne residents.

“There is a political rationale here that is serving core constituencies,” he said. “Invariably what happens when you build a new freeway is that it is congested within a couple of years. There is no confidence it will reduce congestion, the evidence is overwhelming that it will just get filled up with traffic.”

Mark Stone, chief executive of business group VECCI, said the project would “reduce congestion, make the movement of freight more efficient and improve the amenity of Melbourne’s growth areas”.

Work is expected to start on the project later this year, with cars able to access the road by 2019.

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