The real plan is to push us back into cars

Kenneth Davidson says The real plan is to push us back into cars (The Age, 15 December, 2008)

Public transport in Brumby’s scheme smacks of a road agenda.

Given the universal concern about global warming and the importance of transport in the generation of greenhouse gases, it is vital that any proposal for the future development of alternative transport modes should be seen first of all through the prism of their contribution to emission reductions.

After stationary energy, transport is the sector with the highest emissions. In Victoria it is 17 per cent of the total. Without savings in this sector, it is unlikely that Victoria would make its proportionate contribution to Australia’s commitment at Kyoto to cut emissions by 25 to 40 per cent.

For the record, Victorian transport emissions were 19.9 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2006. According to the Victorian Transport Plan, after the abatement measures and exogenous factors such as the assumption of a doubling in oil prices, the introduction of a carbon trading scheme and greater vehicle fuel efficiency, emissions will rise to 20.2 million tonnes CO2 equivalent by 2036.

This should be seen against a study by Environment Victoria that showed Victoria could cut emissions by 9 million tonnes by 2020 and 16 million tonnes by 2030 if immediate measures were introduced.

These include measures to boost vehicle occupancy such as putting high-occupancy transit lanes on existing arterial roads, congestion charges, create a genuine network seamlessly linking bus, tram and train services, additional bus routes in growth areas and increased investment in walking and cycling infrastructure as well as a real commitment to sustainable urban and land use planning and design so that people have to travel shorter distances and less often.

Environment Victoria rightly criticised the failure of the transport plan to confront the central issue: “The state government essentially has a choice between significant public transport and new roads projects — there is unlikely to be enough money for both.”

But how serious is the government about public transport? At a forum organised by the Australasian Centre for the Governance and Management of Urban Transport at Melbourne University last week, the spokesman for the Public Transport Users Association, Tony Morton, described the $38 billion transport plan as an attempt to get people out of public transport and into cars.

He pointed out that, until a year ago, ordinary Melburnians were asking for suburban rail extensions to Rowville, Doncaster, Melton and the airport, more trains to the western and eastern suburbs, and for buses every 10 minutes all over Melbourne — all of which we could have for less than $38 billion.

“The plan gives Melburnians very little of what they asked for and lots of things they didn’t — starting with 120 kilometres of new motorways being justified by all the old discredited 1960s cliches.

“To come out with a plan like this when the quality of life of our children requires an 80 per cent reduction in Australia’s emissions is simply insane,” Morton concluded.

The document is also dishonest. In an attempt to gull exasperated Melbourne commuters into believing that the plan spends as much on public transport as on roads, it has more than $3 billion in padding on its cost estimates for trains, trams , rail extensions and stations.

The plan claims the cost of the South Morang rail extension, involving 8.5 kilometres of new track on an existing easement, is estimated to be $650 million or more than $76 million a kilometre. By comparison, the recently completed 72-kilometre Mandurah Line in Perth, which includes an underground section through the CBD and two underground stations, cost $1.8 billion. This means the cost of the new Perth line, including the underground section, was about $25 million a kilometre. Industry sources believe the total cost of the South Morang line will be between $60 million and $100 million.

The plan argues the cost of 50 new low-floor trams is $1 billion. Industry sources say these trams will cost $5 million each. The only way the cost could be inflated by $750 million is by adding 40 years of maintenance costs, which is a confusion of standard accounting distinctions between capital and current costs.

Similarly, the estimate of $2.6 billion for 70 new metro trains is inflated by about $1.6 billion and again can only be reconciled by assuming maintenance costs over the life of rolling stock is included in the capital costs.

The plan envisages four new stations, all in new growth areas such as Caroline Springs. Even if the stations were built in the CBD, involving massive land acquisition costs, it is impossible to believe that each station would cost $55 million.

The systematic inflation of these costs suggests that the people who wrote the plan were setting up the public transport options to fail in order to ensure that the real roads agenda, beginning with the $750 million Frankston interchange, will get priority without the electoral embarrassment of being upfront about the lack of priority for public transport.

The technique is not new. Readers of this column will recall the responses of the Victorian and Federal ministers of water to written queries by constituents about why the Tasmanian pipeline option was rejected without proper cost-benefit analysis or a serious environmental impact statement in favour of the far more expensive north-south pipeline and desal plant.

Constituents have been fobbed off with ministerial letters claiming the pipeline would cost between $12 billion and $15 billion compared to the pipeline proponents’ estimate of $2.5 billion.

The ministers’ claims are prima facie nonsense. They expect us to believe the cost of laying a water pipeline fed by gravity in a relatively benign environment where the maximum depth is 70 metres is $34 million a kilometre when the recently completed Ormen Lange gas pipeline in the far more hostile North Sea, incorporating pumping stations in depths up to 950 metres, cost only $3 million a kilometre.

The only information Tim Holding is conveying is that the State Government is not prepared to consider the cheaper alternatives to a desal plant. Why? The only information Penny Wong is conveying is that she refuses to consider the single option available to save the lower Murray apart from the compulsory acquisition of more than half the irrigation licences along the Murray-Goulburn Basin. She won’t. She has wasted time and energy to go to the global climate conference in Poznan and has been busy conditioning the electorate to accept a greenhouse gas emission target of a 5 to 20 per cent reduction on 2000 levels — a signpost to catastrophic warming and a flat contradiction of the understanding reached at Kyoto.

When Public Transport Minister Lynne Kosky and Roads Minister Tim Pallas say “it is not a matter of road versus rail — as a government we must invest in all modes to allow Victorians to choose the best means of transport for the type of journey they are taking”, it is a fair bet the ministers are joking because for the majority of their low-income constituents who live mainly in the outer and new growth suburbs, there is no choice except to continue to run two or three cars in perpetuity if they want a life.