Coalition agrees to change guidelines on states’ road-building projects

Guardian: Coalition agrees to change guidelines on states’ road-building projects. Oliver Milman, Friday 5 September 2014

Government says it will provide more ‘sophisticated and consistent’ approach to major infrastructure ventures

Workers and police look on as East West Link protesters picket a test drilling site in Collingwood in January. Photograph: Joe Sabliak/AAP

The federal government has agreed with the states to change its guidelines on how major transport infrastructure projects are assessed, as it attempts to hasten its program of road building.

Jamie Briggs, the federal assistant minister for infrastructure, has released a new framework paper for appraisals that he said would provide a more “sophisticated and consistent” approach to judging major infrastructure projects.

It is expected the widened guidelines will make it easier for the federal government to approve major road projects such as the WestConnex in Sydney and the East West Link in Melbourne.

The paper states that consideration for projects should “not be limited to the monetised benefits and costs captured in the cost benefit analysis”. It states that other factors, such as reduced congestion, falling vehicle operating costs and accident reduction should be considered.

And “wider economic benefits” should be considered, such as productivity benefits.

Briggs said state transport ministers have agreed to the new approach, with work under way to best estimate wider economic benefits.

“This framework will lead to more transparent decision-making with major projects selected based on a broader range of factors that better reflect community expectations and achieve value for taxpayers’ money,” he said.

The East West Link has been dogged by controversy, with the federal government pledging $1.5bn to the project without a public business case for the road. Previous estimates for the $18bn project, which is fiercely opposed by some residents and pro-public transport advocates, suggest it would generate a return of just 80c for every dollar spent.

Anthony Albanese, Labor’s infrastructure spokesman, said the cost benefit analysis process should be independent.

“Our former government had no input into how the cost benefit analysis was done; it was handled by Infrastructure Australia,” he told Guardian Australia. “We’ve got the extraordinary position where this government will do the cost benefit analysis after approving projects.

“Tony Abbott has no understanding of infrastructure. He said there would be cranes in the sky around Australia and yet they can’t point to one single project that wasn’t occurring under the previous Labor government.”

Professor Brendan Gleeson, the director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, said it appeared the government was changing the rules to push through its agenda.

“The focus on roads is lamentable given that all the evidence shows that we need to move cities to a more sustainable setting,” he said. “These guidelines seem to reinforce the view that these major urban projects are about a narrow economic agenda rather than an urban planning agenda. They are regressive road projects under the cloak of a planning scheme.

“We’d like to see the prioritisation of the liveability and amenity of our cities. But this government’s approach seems to be more about just driving towards a desired result.”

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