The Age: Napthine’s east-west tunnel, it’s just not cricket

The Age: Napthine’s east-west tunnel, it’s just not cricket (August 12, 2013) Ross McMullin

Creating a bigger road to fix congestion is like loosening your belt to fix obesity.

The bewildering decision that Australian batsman Usman Khawaja endured at Old Trafford recently has been universally condemned. It was denounced by cricketers around the world, Kevin Rudd castigated it, and Cricket Australia even lodged a formal protest. The Khawaja dismissal was mystifying because the evidence the third umpire examined pointed so clearly to the opposite conclusion. It was incomprehensible.

In fact, the Khawaja verdict was the worst decision since – well, since another shocker earlier this year. The decision to embark on an expensive east-west freeway tunnel remains similarly mystifying.

Denis Napthine claims that drivers frustrated by traffic gridlock on the Eastern Freeway will welcome his tunnel. This is absurd – 80 per cent of the traffic coming off the freeway doesn’t head west, it turns south into similarly clogged Hoddle Street. As freeway users know, Napthine is spouting nonsense. It’s pretty simple. If you watch where the ball went, you know Khawaja wasn’t out. If you watch where the cars go, you know the east-west tunnel won’t fix Eastern Freeway congestion.

Moreover, it’s a colossal waste of money and the return on this immense outlay will be meagre.

When the cost/benefit ratio was examined, the analysis (based on authoritative, well-established modelling) demonstrated that for every dollar spent the return was only 50 cents. ”That should have been the end of it” as ”the project is simply a waste of money”, declared Paul Mees, Melbourne’s internationally acclaimed transport expert, in his last public appearance before his untimely death.

Instead, the Napthine government concocted a spurious measurement of its own in supposed justification of the tunnel. If this unusual method of calculation was convincing, the Premier would be flourishing it, but he claims it has to stay secret – which only reinforces the conclusion that it’s a Dodgy Brothers exercise.

What the government should be doing is clear. It should construct a rail line along the centre of the Eastern Freeway, which would connect with the existing train line to the city at Hoddle Street. This would be a much better solution to freeway congestion – and would cost far less – than the east-west tunnel. The environmental impact would be much more favourable as well.

It would be better for everyone frustrated by the freeway crush. Some drivers stuck in the traffic will see trains going past day after day, and will conclude that getting on board is a no-brainer. As they do, the traffic will decrease, which benefits even those tenacious drivers who can’t bear not driving to work. So everyone would end up better off with rail. And there would be funds available for other urgent transport priorities such as road/rail separation and updated signalling, the kinds of advances that would facilitate the connection of the new line to the existing network.

Melbourne’s congestion problems have become dire, and it’s crucial that appropriate remedies are chosen. Selecting the east-west project as the primary solution, thereby depriving other major infrastructure options of funds for many years, is preposterous. As one observer put it, creating a bigger road to fix congestion is like loosening your belt to fix obesity.

The Victorian government, previously criticised for being an infrastructure ditherer, now claims the east-west tunnel will generate thousands of construction jobs. But there will be numerous construction jobs in whatever major infrastructure projects eventuate. The crucial thing is to choose the right ones, not one big wrong one.

Indeed, it’s such a mystifying decision that there is surely a hidden agenda, some pundits have concluded. They have predicted that big trucks will be encouraged to proliferate along the new route and the Eastern Freeway.

Other commentators have emphasised the dubious financial arrangements, which have left taxpayers liable for risks worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Even Transurban, the CityLink operator, concluded that the funding model ”just doesn’t work”.

Moreover, the Liberals are doing the opposite of what they promised during the previous election campaign. In November 2010 they not only ruled out an east-west tunnel if they won office; they also promised to construct a rail line to Doncaster along the Eastern Freeway.

The Liberals’ cynical effrontery knows no bounds. Besides doing precisely the opposite of their pre-election promises, they’ve now declared they will hijack the reservation that has for decades been preserved for a rail line to Doncaster, and use it to widen the freeway. They are also threatening to sign long-term contracts for the tunnel’s construction just before the next election, in order to prevent voters from having any say at the ballot box on this massive project that is massively flawed.

This is outrageous. In equivalent circumstances, when John Howard ruled out a GST in opposition but reversed his stance in office, he took his changed position to an election and obtained a mandate for it.

However, Denis Napthine is proposing to do the opposite. This is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Melbourne’s existence, yet he’s treating the electorate with contempt.

And he has Tony Abbott’s support. Abbott has said he will provide $1.5 billion for Napthine’s tunnel even though it’s a conspicuous non-solution and he hasn’t seen the document that purports to justify it. For the improved public transport that Melbourne desperately needs, Abbott will contribute nothing.

No wonder many Victorians have concluded that the Liberals’ decision on the east-west project is as bad as the notorious dismissal of Usman Khawaja.

Ross McMullin is the author of Farewell, Dear People: Biographies of Australia’s Lost Generation.