Melbourne’s East-West Link demise has rich lessons for planners

Melbourne’s East-West Link demise has rich lessons for planners 23 April 2015 Bernard Salt

The demise of Melbourne’s East-West Link project is an appropriate time to reconsider the city’s future and the future of strategic and infrastructure planning throughout metropolitan Australia.

The East-West Link project was to be completed in two stages: a tunnel stage connecting the Eastern and the Tullamarine freeways and a western-link stage providing access to the western suburbs.

The full project was expected to cost upwards of $17 billion with the initial tunnel component costing $9bn. The entire project was planned to be completed over the next decade. It now seems that the project will not proceed, with compensation of $339 million having been paid by the Victorian government to the consortium engaged by the previous government.

I am not interested in whether cancelling this project was right or wrong. I am interested in what this development might mean for strategic planning and for infrastructure investment.

It would seem that large-scale infrastructure projects such as the East-West Link now require a two-term government to proceed. It takes the first term to determine priorities, to come up with a plan and funding and to engage builders. It takes a second term to progress works to the point where a subsequent government cannot rescind the process. Victoria’s desalination plant is a good example of how this process works; this project was initiated by the ALP but was completed by the Coalition. I think anyone bidding for an infrastructure project will now take into account an assessment of whether the government will continue to a second term. Why put in a serious bid if the government looks shaky?

On the matter of the East-West Link, I was always surprised by the decision to invest in a project that connected Melbourne’s northeast with the northwest. The single most important traffic issue for Melbourne is another crossing of the Yarra/Maribyrnong rivers to alleviate pressure on the Westgate Bridge. Melbourne now contains 4.4 million people; by 2050 it will have 7.7 million. In just over three decades three million Melburnians will be added with most growth being directed to the city’s western flank. The East-West Link was to provide connectivity with the west but only after completion of the tunnel. The vital second river crossing would not have been completed in this strategy until the mid-2020s or later.

I do not disagree with the principle of the East-West Link. However, the sheer weight of the west’s expanding demographics should have prioritised this project as a West-East Link, with the western stage completed first and the tunnel stage completed second. But better connectivity between the CBD and the burgeoning west is only part of the strategy needed to deliver better fluidity and quality of life to Melbourne.

This might seem like an odd thing to say, but Melbourne is quite constricted by its scale and its geography. Melbourne has evolved a bit like a fried egg with a job-rich yolk surrounded by a bland suburban white. And for 150 years Melburnians used trams, trains and cars to travel from suburbia to city centre. This model worked well while the city sprawled across flat terrain to the east and southeast

However, as Melbourne approaches the limits of car commutability (say 60km to the east) and as it reaches scale (more than four million residents), inner-city congestion ensues. The job-rich and the culture-rich inner-city becomes paralysed with congestion. One solution is to invest in public transport. But this “solution” is both costly and time consuming. A single subway line currently proposed between Parkville and the Domain will take a decade to deliver. At this rate by the mid-2030s Melbourne might have two underground railway lines outside the city loop!

A better solution, or a concurrent solution, is to decentralise jobs out of the CBD to strategic nodes on the hub-and-spoke railway network: Footscray in the west; perhaps Moonee Ponds in the north; Box Hill or Camberwell in the east; perhaps Moorabbin or Caulfield in the southeast. State governments could then encourage the dispersal of cultural, social and job infrastructure to a far broader urban canvas and thereby relieve inner-city congestion as the greater city passes from four to seven million residents.

The principles that apply to Melbourne have already evolved in the bigger city of Sydney, which supports decentralised CBDs at Chatswood in the north and at Parramatta in the west. Because of the hilly terrain, the off-centre CBD and the dissecting presence of the harbour, Sydney was always going to be further progressed in this decentralised city model of metropolitan planning — although I suspect this evolved more through serendipity than through planning. After all, Sydney’s current strategic plan looks out 15 years; Melbourne’s looks out 35 years.

But big, broad, flat Melbourne has now reached a point of critical mass where the fried-egg model of city development produces traffic gridlock within the central yolk. All that suburban white focuses on a single creamy hipster yolk. It was always only a matter of time before fluidity within the urban system is squeezed to a standstill in Melbourne.

As both cities expand towards the seven million mark, there will be a requirement for and a natural evolution of CBD jobs and CBD-fringe living and lifestyles. This CBD-overspill and city-lifestyle market is enthusiastically embraced in Melbourne’s Docklands and the inner suburbs. For CBD-constrained Sydney, the options are less apparent. Barangaroo will ably accommodate and absorb some of this job and lifestyle market, perhaps indeed the cream. But further CBD overspill will push the city south and into the precinct further south of Redfern. I like the area serviced by the Newtown, Macdonaldtown and Erskineville railway stations — all those railway lines give extraordinary access to the metropolitan area.

But unlike Melbourne, Sydney’s future is pretty much a continuation of the past. Three million extra Sydneysiders will build out the urban fabric and also bolt on to the northwest and southwest growth areas. The next three decades or so in Melbourne will rebalance the city and change the dynamics of how suburbia engages with the job-rich city centre. Decentralised mini-CBDs disperse pressure on the inner city and a western link, however conceived and delivered, will reduce pressure on the Westgate Bridge.

The lessons for other cities from the East-West Link is to ensure that the prioritisation of infrastructure is so compelling that no subsequent government could possibly argue other priorities. What Melbourne needs is a West-East Link combined with a policy of decentralisation and a sustained commitment to public transport.

KPMG partner Bernard Salt will speak on property investment in future Melbourne at a PCA Victoria lunch on Thursday, April 30 at the RACV Club, Melbourne;