The Age: The east-west vision for a city on the move

Age Masthead 31.03.12

The Age: The east-west vision for a city on the move. Josh Gordon and Jason Dowling. March 31, 2012

A new road linking the Eastern Freeway to CityLink could cut a swath through inner suburbs under options being considered by the state government. While most of the new link is still expected to consist of a tunnel, the government is looking at proposals to build sections of the freeway at ground level to cut costs.

The new link is expected to be the government’s centrepiece road project.

Options being considered include building part of the freeway above ground along Alexandra Parade.

Early modelling is being done by the Linking Melbourne Authority, Victoria’s statutory authority for managing complex road projects.

The authority has also started developing a business case for the new freeway and it is believed there was a government proposal last year to divert $20 million from the VicRoads budget to undertake an engineering and geological assessment.

The state government’s submission to the federal government’s Infrastructure Australia for an initial $30 million for the project connecting the Eastern Freeway, CityLink and Western Ring Road does not mention a tunnel.

Asked if parts of the project might be built at ground level, a state government spokeswoman said: ”The Coalition government is currently considering options for the project to achieve maximum benefit and lowest cost to the taxpayer.”

Dennis Cliche, the managing director of the Connect East company that owns and operates EastLink, said his group would be interested in being part of a consortium to build the new link.

”I don’t think it is 100 per cent necessary that it be a tunnel, although the most talked about option in general is a tunnel,” Mr Cliche said.

A well-placed industry source said business was gearing up for the new freeway project.

”We are starting to hear people are starting to form consortiums,” the source said.

Another source said consideration was being given to ”re-prioritising” the project so that a section from the Eastern Freeway to CityLink would be built before extending the project to the Western Ring Road, reversing the process recommended by Infrastructure Australia chairman Sir Rod Eddington.

Exit points leading to the city are also being considered to make the road more attractive for tolling purposes.

”This would make a joke of what Eddington originally proposed because he was talking about a north city bypass,” the second source said. ”This proposal is about eastern access into the city. Infrastructure Australia would no more put money into this than fly to the moon.”

Pressure is building on the government to announce its next big road project, with Peninsula Link and the Western Ring Road upgrade to be completed in the next two years, bringing around 1000 road construction jobs to an end.

The Eastern Freeway extension is believed to be the road project most attractive to private-sector investment because of its ability to generate high toll revenue, particularly with access ramps to the city.

The government’s submission to Infrastructure Australia made clear that the sections of the proposed east-west link proposal that were most amenable to a partnership with the private sector, including private finance, would be developed first.

Michael Deegan from Infrastructure Australia said the agency would be providing further advice to the state government in late April.

Business, unions and road groups are lobbying hard for the new freeway.

The RACV’s Brian Negus said the finance sector was most interested in the Eastern Freeway to CityLink section of the east-west link and the RACV ranked this connection its top transport priority for Melbourne.

Melbourne City Council’s position has changed from outright opposition under the previous council to having no ”formal view” on the proposed inner-city freeway.

Australian Workers Union Victorian secretary Cesar Melhem told The Saturday Age the east-west link ”has to happen”.

But Greens MP Adam Bandt said Melburnians ”do not want a tollway cutting through their communities”.

”Whether it is a tunnel or above ground, the east-west link will make Melbourne less liveable and create a rat’s nest of off-ramps in the inner city,” Mr Bandt said. If the federal government ”wants to fund this madness they are going to have come through me”.

RMIT University public transport expert Paul Mees said the project would not begin in the near future because no one had the money to fund it. ”What we need is a very long collective cold shower … it is fantastically expensive and nobody has that kind of money,” he said.

But industry experts said there were several options for governments, even in the tough economic climate, to fund new infrastructure, including asset sales, shared public-private funding of the project and even tolling existing roads to contribute to the cost of the link and help funnel motorists onto the new freeway.

Alan Rosengarten, an infrastructure expert with law firm Freehills, said: ”We think it is possible to attract private-sector investment into infrastructure projects, including roads. While there have been problems with previous models that have been used in the road sector, there are other options that have been proven to work both in Australia and internationally.”

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