The sad truth about Melbourne’s transport future

[ A+ ] /[ A- ]

The Age: The sad truth about Melbourne’s transport future. October 3, 2014. Jason Dowling

Reality check for the people of Victoria: there is no train to the airport “with services every 10 minutes”, no tunnel beneath the city connecting Fishermans Bend and St Kilda Road to the CBD. You are being fed a myth. Again. These rail projects are never happening, or at least not for decades.

The worse part is millions of dollars that could be invested in better public transport is instead being spent propagating this public transport illusion across television, radio and print media.

The Melbourne Rail Link, from Melbourne Airport to Southern Cross, then through to Fishermans Bend and Domain – the Napthine Government’s plan for “generational change to public transport” – will not happen based on current funding levels.

The Labor Party’s alternative Melbourne Metro Rail tunnel project, with new stations at the Arden Hospital Precinct, Parkville University Precinct, CBD North (Melbourne Central), CBD South (Flinders Street) and Domain, is also unlikely, given its meagre initial funding commitment of just $300 million. By contrast Labor has committed up to $600 million for rail extension to Mernda.

The best way to tell a real project from an election project is to follow the money and look at how other big projects have been delivered in the past.

History tells us is that big projects need either billions of dollars in federal cash or a state government willing to impose a new tax or levy to pay for them. The rail projects currently bombarding our television screens have neither.

Melbourne’s City Loop was funded through a combination of government debt and a special city levy. The $4.1 billion Regional Rail – a new link running from West Werribee to Southern Cross Station that separates regional trains from metropolitan trains – received up to three-quarters of its funding from the federal government.

Timelines also provide clues on whether a project is likely to succeed.

Regional Rail was the centrepiece of the Brumby government’s 2008 Victorian Transport Plan. In the 2009/10 budget it was allocated $42 million. The same year the federal government committed $3.2 billion for the project. Eight months after it was announced, work had begun, and trains will start running on the new tracks next year. Start to finish – six years. It shows what is possible when there is a will and money to back it up.

Another Victorian transport project has followed a similar trajectory – but it is not a train line. The East West Link did not get a mention in the Coalition’s 2010 election promises. Instead, there were pledges to push for a high-speed rail between Melbourne and Sydney, to plan the Melbourne Airport rail link, a Doncaster rail link and to conduct a Rowville rail feasibility study. Four years on, the East West Link is the Napthine government’s No. 1 transport priority, with the Premier showing reckless haste in signing a contract before voters decide in November if they want this road or this government.

There are several reasons we can be confident that stage one of East West Link – from the Eastern Freeway to CityLink – is a “real” project and not just an excuse to advertise.

Most importantly, it has $1.5 billion in federal money to get moving. Secondly, the state government has shown real funding support for the project now, not in distant budget years, and the project will attract toll revenue, with the same effect as the levy for the City Loop.

Last financial year there was estimated expenditure of $191 million on East West Link stage one, with another $290 million allocated this financial year. Treasury also expects expenditure this year of $100 million on the western section, or stage two, of the East West Link, connecting it to the Western Ring Road. The Abbott government has also pitched in another $1.5 billion for the western section.

Compare this to Melbourne Rail Link. The rail link has just $40 million this year, $50 million next year, $140 million in 2016/17 and $600 million in 2017/18, a fraction of the total estimated cost of $8.5 to $11 billion.

There is only funding for about 2 per cent of the project in the next three years. The first significant year of funding is four years away, the softest year in the budget forward estimates and the one most likely to change based on political, revenue and cost pressures.

And then there is the big question: where does the remaining $10 billion come from? Not from Tony Abbott, who has ruled out federal funding of urban rail projects.

When you consider the state government was prepared to forego the $50 million of funding that had been committed to the now-scrapped original Metro Rail project through Parkville, the $40 million committed in this year’s state budget is meaningless.

Transport Minister Terry Mulder was asked repeatedly at a media event recently when Melburnians would be able to catch a train to the airport. He could not say. The budget papers say the project will be completed “from 2023/24” – more than two terms of government away.

A more pressing question is: when will work start? A taxpayer-funded television ad during the Brownlow Medal count showed a new train zooming to the airport, with a voice-over saying, “Trains will depart every 10 minutes”. This is breathtaking spin. The government knows the timetable for a train line is more than a decade away, but it cannot nominate in what year it be might be completed?

The Age requested government documents on the Metro Rail project, through freedom of information. A response was due by April 4 . We are still waiting.

Victoria needs a state government with courage; brave enough to impose a rail levy or to admit to the public that we cannot build it without federal money.

The ABC TV series Utopia was about the fictional government agency Nation Building Authority that never actually builds anything and instead unveils plans and “stage two” media announcements to keep politicians happy. Sound familiar?

Governments should not try to advertise their way to another term, and oppositions need to set out clear funding plans for grand infrastructure policies. Victorians are sick of phonies with phoney projects.

Jason Dowling is a senior writer at The Age.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *