The Age: East West Link, CityLink, Western Ring Road: Waiting years, but is it worth it? March 5, 2014. Clay Lucas. Workplace Editor for The Age.
Good things take time. In the state of Victoria, if it’s building city-defining infrastructure, it seems that’s an understatement.
A new report released by the Napthine government’s road authority this week – to bolster its case to build the East West Link – details just how long four of Melbourne’s key projects took from conception to completion.
Every project has to be assessed on its own merits, not by hand-waving about superficially similar projects in the past.
In the case of the City Loop, first conceptualised in 1929, it took 56 years before opening in 1985.
Melbourne’s CityLink: worthwhile or overpriced? Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
CityLink was first proposed in 1969 but not completed until 2000, the Western Ring Road took 55 years to finally open in 1999 and the Box Hill activity centre, built above the railway station, was first conceived in 1954 and planned throughout the 1970s but did not open until 1992.
Economists and planners SGS completed the report on the long-term economic impacts of the four key projects.
The research found all four projects allowed the economy of Melbourne and Victoria to expand dramatically, “providing important conditions which allowed the economy to take a new growth trajectory”.
Inside the City Loop tunnels. Photo: Craig Abraham
Together the City Loop, Western Ring Road and CityLink, the study said, saw the Victorian economy generate an additional 169,200 jobs since their completion. CityLink in particular, the report said, adds almost $9 billion a year to Melbourne’s economy.
But the report’s findings have been questioned by a public transport group, which argues the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on CityLink would have been better used on projects such as an airport train line and removing level crossings.
Public Transport Users Association president Tony Morton said using the supposed benefits of “other unrelated transport projects” to argue that the East West Link is beneficial was wrong.
The Western Ring Road during construction from the Pascoe Vale Road overpass. Photo: Ken Irwin
“Every project has to be assessed on its own merits, not by hand-waving about superficially similar projects in the past,” he said.
SGS principal Terry Rawnsley, who completed the study for the state government, said projects like the City Loop and CityLink had made it easier for employees to reach potential employers.
“[They meant] existing jobs can interact more easily with each other,” Mr Rawnsley said. “Before [CityLink] was built. if I had a potential client in Monash and I was in the city, I might not have bothered to go out there and make my pitch. But now I would.”
Outside the Box Hill train station and activity centre. Photo: Gary Medlicott
Mr Rawnsley said demolishing CityLink today from Melbourne would remove $9 billion worth of economic activity from the city’s economy.
And in Melbourne’s central business district, the City Loop had provided an even greater impetus for more people to find employment, as it was easier to get to places of work.
“If you ripped out the City Loop, we would be $10.4 billion poorer,” he said.
The report, completed in July 2012 but released on Monday, was written with a clear eye to justifying the $6-8 billion East West Link. The road tunnel will link the Eastern Freeway with CityLink via a tunnel under Carlton and the Melbourne General Cemetery.
The Napthine government argues the road will over time return $1.40 for every $1 spent on it, after factoring in wider economic benefits.
But the state government’s own estimates show Victoria could recoup just 80¢ for every $1 spent if these wider economic benefits are excluded. The report points out that “during their inception some of the projects analysed had a benefit-cost ratio below one”.
Mr Rawnsley said it was not clear why Melbourne took so long to build major infrastructure projects.
“If we compare the Melbourne processes to Sydney … it’s a similar 30-year gestation period,” he said.
Transport Minister Terry Mulder this week announced a planned development of the Hampton station precinct, in Melbourne’s south. Jewell railway station in Brunswick in Melbourne’s inner north is also under consideration for development.
But major projects above the city’s rail tracks are comparatively rare outside the city centre.
Box Hill station, redeveloped in the early 1990s, is an exception; Mr Rawnsley said it had “got a bit lucky” in being remade as an activity centre built above a railway line. “It had a pro development council and also the level crossing was causing heaps of problem,” he said. “It’s probably the best centre we have above rail in Melbourne outside the CBD.”
The Public Transport Users Association’s Dr Morton said the big question in considering SGS’s research was opportunity cost.
“Any infrastructure is going to have greater benefit than if it were absent, all else being equal,” Dr Morton said. “But if we compare the traffic situation in Melbourne now with the mostly more benign conditions of the early 1990s – particularly outside peak hour – it does raise the question whether the billions of dollars of public money spent on CityLink would have done more good if spent on other projects.”
And he said the report overlooked many of the obvious negative effects of CityLink, such as making congestion worse on the arterial roads that feed it.
The East West Link, if it does start construction this year as the government plans, will have been conceived relatively recently. It was first proposed in its current form in 2008 by Sir Rod Eddington, although the idea parts of the freeway have existed since at least 1969.