Free trams can come at a cost

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The Age: Editorial – Free trams can come at a cost. March 28, 2014

The state government’s $100 million-a-year public-transport policy certainly has its bells and whistles – and we don’t mean just the dinging and hooting of trams and trains. There is also the distinct sound of a fast-approaching election. How else to explain this week’s surprise allocation of $100 million of recurrent funding from May’s state budget to enable (from January 1 next year) free tram travel in the CBD and Docklands, and uniform zone 1 fares across the entire metropolitan transport network?

This will all happen. The policy might have been instigated and funds allocated by the government, but it has Labor’s endorsement. Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews could barely wait to say that he would implement the idea if the ALP wins the November election.

The Age welcomes some aspects of this policy. The free-for-all tram plan for central Melbourne has long been mooted by various government and civic authorities – the media, too: in 2006, The Sunday Age campaigned for free travel on all Melbourne’s trains, trams and buses. What will happen, in practice, is that Melbourne will take a bold step towards consolidating its liveable-city status. Commuters and inner-city residents, including the many students who live here, will be happy; tourists, who have had to grapple with the hostile complexities of the Myki system, will be better served; and tram fare evasion will, by default, cease to exist in the CBD, meaning ticket inspectors can be more usefully deployed elsewhere on the network. The streamlining of the network’s zonal system will mean commuters from outer suburbs will pay just the zone 1 fare, making significant savings. Travel entirely within zone 2 will remain at a discounted fare.

So far, so good. But two worthy advances do not mask what is essentially policy on the run, designed for fast-track voter appeal rather than forming part of what should be a far more cohesive public transport plan. This week’s policy does not encompass the broader problems of reform, such as the need to build more rail lines and buy more trains and trams to ease overcrowding on the system. More attractive fare structures and free travel will add to the strain, not relieve it.

A rapidly growing and spread-out city such as Melbourne must have first-rate rail and road networks, but ones developed concurrently. The central philosophy of Sir Rod Eddington’s 2008 report on our transport system was a holistic approach from government that would ensure simultaneous development of its two main recommendations: the East West Link, and the Metro rail project. Not so long ago (in fact, at the end of February), the Premier appeared to endorse this approach by committing his government to a ”rail capacity project”, as well as to the East West Link. The Age welcomed this, with some reservations. Now Dr Napthine already appears to have lost focus by producing a pop-up populist policy as against a more considered and cogent plan with greater long-term benefits than a free tram ride down Bourke Street.

An essential question: does this plan represent the best use of $100 million a year of public money? We ask this in the face of government warnings of a tight budget and our present economic climate. Could $100 million be better spent on improving the parlous state of public housing? As we reported yesterday, Victoria is the lowest funder of public housing per head of population. Or what about the appalling crisis in child protection, or the shortage of adequate hospital services? These concerns require immediate and constant funding. Government and opposition should regain their sense of perspective. Duty of care is more important than catching the commuter vote.

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