Legislation for public transport authority introduced

From the September PTUA Newsletter

Legislation establishing the Public Transport Development Authority was introduced to State Parliament on 14 September, and is expected to be debated this week.

On this vitally important policy initiative the government is proceeding broadly in the right direction. The structure and powers of the PTDA in this legislation largely mirror those of Vicroads. The PTDA will have its own Board, including one position reserved for a community representative.

That said, we are obviously keen that the PTDA’s enabling legislation should be as good as it can be, and viewed in this light there are some important shortcomings.

Both the PTDA and Vicroads are required to exercise their powers “subject to the Department [of Transport]’s planning framework”. The precise meaning of this requirement, dating from the final year of the Brumby Government, is still being established. But a comparison of Vicroads’ actual functions with the new PTDA legislation indicates that Vicroads does still enjoy some wider powers.

In particular, existing legislation cites one of the functions of Vicroads as to “develop and implement operational policies and plans, including through legislation, regulations, standards, guidelines and practices, for the road system. . . “. But the new legislation makes clear that the responsibilities of the PTDA do not extend to development of legislation or regulations regarding public transport. Instead, its role is limited to providing advice to the Transport Department.

Another asymmetry that remains between Vicroads and the PTDA is that Vicroads is governed by a single CEO appointed by the “Governor in Council” –that is to say, the Cabinet — while the PTDA has a Board appointed by the Minister, and a CEO appointed by the Board with the Minister’s approval. This has its good and its bad aspects. The notion of an independent Board is one that we have championed, but is compromised by having Board appointments essentially in the gift of theMinister. Preferable to this would be a merit-based appointment process similar to that used federally for ABC and SBS board appointments.

The Department of Transport also retains the key responsibility of preparing the ‘Transport Plan’. This is the overarching plan which according to current legislation “must set the planning framework within which the transport bodies are to operate”. This makes sense if the plan merely sets a broad strategic framework, consistent with planner Vukan Vuchic’s concept of ‘strategic level’ planning. But what the legislation actually calls for are “priorities and actions” and “a short-term action plan that is regularly updated”.

Unfortunately, it appears a lot of power is being left in the hands of the bureaucracy, with the PTDA being less independent than many of its overseas equivalents. While it is important that transport authorities work within a ‘whole of government’ strategic framework, the scope for direct political control over public transport planning is still broader than necessary.

Aside from the question of the PTDA’s powers, the other main area we would want to see strengthened is that of transparency. The best transport authorities are those that publish their plans and deliberations, make data on system performance and timetables generally available, and allow the public to observe their meetings. These do not appear as requirements in the legislation, nor is there any obligation to publish the PTDA’s “statements of corporate intent”, which are the closest things the PTDA will have to formal ‘plans’. Matters of clear public interest, such as the Deloitte review of Myki, could still be kept secret under this legislation.

Community representation in the PTDA’s governance is also limited to the one community representative position on the Board. There is no separate community advisory committee (such as does exist in the case of Vicroads), or any provision for community input into decision-making processes, such as facilities for receiving public submissions.

Ultimately, however, it is the people as much as the formal structures that will determine how the PTDA plays out in practice. The challenge for inaugural CEO Ian Dobbs will be to ensure the PTDA disowns the culture of the ‘bad old PTC’—a concern frequently expressed by those who argued against an independent planning authority. We would recommend he look to his WA counterparts for a paradigm example of a competent authority in action.