Roads to nowhere – by William McDougall

YCAT is re-posting this important and damning letter by senior transport planner William McDougall, published in the SMH and The Sunday Age, Jan 7th 2018.

YCAT hosts complete copies of the Eddington Investing in Transport Report (2008) and the Norther Central City Corridor Study (2001) that are referenced in the article below. We do this in the hope that one day transport planning will be evidenced based and not corrupted by monopolistic corporate interests. Neither study is available on any Victorian Government web site, despite being publicly funded.

Our ridiculous frenzy of road construction will swallow up resources for two decades

by William McDougall

Victoria’s politicians have thrown away the benefits of the state’s stamp duty bonanza and the proceeds from the Port of Melbourne sale over recent years by investing in politically motivated, badly conceived road projects.They have also delayed and dumbed down vital public transport projects.

All of this has been for purely political reasons, yet it hasn’t even delivered political success: the last two state elections have been lost on transport grounds. The next could go the same way.

We in the real world have known for years that building more roads generates more traffic and worsens congestion. For this reason, Melbourne’s growth and economic success is best served by putting public transport first, not last.

Last Friday, as the end of the year approached, the government released the heavily redacted contract with Transurban for the West Gate Tunnel. It will cost Victorians billions, unnecessarily, and yet it is just the latest in a string of foolish road projects this state has embarked on.

Over 18 months from 2001, I oversaw the Northern Central City Corridor Study for the Bracks Labor government. This major investigation by the state showed that investing in public transport properly would avoid the need for new roads in the north, including the East West Link.Then, in 2007, I was among those advising Sir Rod Eddington on his East West Link Needs Assessment.

Those of us advising Eddington argued strongly that the study had to consider public transport as well as roads if it was to come to any meaningful conclusions.

Eddington took that on board, and when his study came out it recommended building the Melbourne Metro ahead of the East West Link.

Another project proposed by Eddington, the Regional Rail Link, ended up being built before either. Funded by Labor, the incoming Baillieu government from 2010 tried to save time and money by reducing its scope and benefits.

When Denis Napthine took over as premier in 2013, he dreamed up an inferior version of the Melbourne Metro. Napthine’s project (dubbed the Melbourne Rail Link) bypassed the CBD rather than servicing it.

The rail link was imposed on the transport department by Napthine and his ministers, keen to have a “non-Labor” project under way. So politicised had transport planning become that public servants were told to “make it work” when they advised him that it was a dud.

Napthine also fast-tracked the East West Link, signing contracts in haste for a project that had a benefit-cost ratio of 45 cents in the dollar. In doing so, he completely ignored the most recent research into the project – Eddington’s 2008 study – and pressed ahead regardless. Again for political reasons.

When Labor returned to power, the Andrews government immediately dropped the Melbourne Rail Link and resurrected Melbourne Metro. However, they omitted metro platforms at South Yarra station, thus worsening the rail service at the busiest station outside the City Loop.

They also scrapped the East West Link and committed to removing 50 of Melbourne’s many rail level crossings.

But Labor also did a secret deal with Transurban to build the West Gate Tunnel, going through a sham business case assessment – in which I was involved as a senior reviewer.

Labor used the same team of public servants and consultants as did the East West Link business case.

I was so deeply concerned about the traffic forecasting and economic analysis being carried out for the West Gate Tunnel business case I raised my concerns with Treasurer Tim Pallas.

My warning was ignored and I was removed from the project.

The deal to build the West Gate Tunnel will benefit Transurban through extended tolling on CityLink until 2046, as well as tolling on the new road.

We taxpayers are subsidising the project (to the tune of $1.6 billion, and rising) to give this toll revenue to Transurban.

I think this must be the first publicly subsidised toll road in Australia, in modern times.

Daniel Andrews says that if the opposition blocks the deal in the Victorian Parliament the project will still go ahead, but taxpayers will foot the bill. He is also trying to make badly needed reforms to the toll penalties dependent on the project. This kind of cynical, desperate politicking surpasses anything done by his predecessors and must rank among the worst pieces of transport “policy” in Melbourne’s history.

Adding insult to injury, both the main parties now support the North East Link, and the Liberals want to resurrect the East West Link. Both will load up the Eastern Freeway, which I fully expect will then need widening – and tolling – as part of the deal. Thus we’ll probably end up with tolls on CityLink, the West Gate Tunnel, the East West Link, the North East Link, the Eastern Freeway and EastLink.

This ridiculous frenzy of road construction will swallow up resources for two decades, preventing any more major public transport improvements after Melbourne Metro. We’ll end up with even greater car dependency and road congestion.

The West Gate Tunnel fiasco could help tip the Andrews government out at this November’s election – a supreme irony given Labor’s fight against the East West Link.

Meanwhile, Matthew Guy has concocted a plan to “remove” 55 of Melbourne’s busiest road intersections. This commitment comes with no business case or any planning context whatsoever. This latest, desperate attempt at “congestion-busting” is doomed from the outset.

In any sensible world, the undoubtedly bad outcomes from Guy’s plan for the urban fabric, for public transport, for cyclists and for pedestrians would quickly put paid to such lunacy.

Not, I fear, in 21st-century Melbourne. As someone who has been involved at the highest level in Victoria as a transport planner for many years, I am thoroughly disgusted by the mess our politicians have created.

Efforts by planners like me over the years to engender some sanity in the process have been ignored. I feel as though my entire career has been in vain.

And so, although it makes no real difference to anyone else, I hereby refuse to associate myself with Victoria’s state government any more. I strongly encourage my fellow practitioners to join me in revolt, and to stop selling themselves out to a dysfunctional system. Our energies as a profession should instead go to sorting out the mess.

William McDougall is a transport planner with 40 years’ experience. He has advised Labor and Liberal state governments in Victoria on projects including Rod Eddington’s transport plan; the Rowville, Doncaster and airport rail links; the Metro Tunnel; and the West Gate Tunnel.

Vale Ron Tanberg