Kennett-era project sets bar for affordable level crossing removal

Melbourne crossings could be wiped out for cost of East West road link, says PTUA

Eliminating most level crossings in Melbourne to catch up with Sydney could create economic benefits exceeding those from the East West road link, the Public Transport Users Association said today.

“This idea spread by the government that grade separations have to cost $150 or $200 million each is simply nonsense,” PTUA President Tony Morton said.

Dr Morton pointed to recent grade separation projects costing far less, such as the removal of the Kororoit Road level crossing in Altona for $48.5 million in 2008 (including road duplication), the Laburnum grade separation for $66 million in 2007 (including station rebuild), and the Palmers Road overpass now under construction for $24 million. All those projects were supervised by Vicroads.

“However, our benchmark for a level crossing removal done well and in a cost-effective manner is still the Boronia station project done under Ian Dobbs and the Kennett Government in the late 1990s,” said Dr Morton.

The Boronia project in 1998 involved lowering the two-track Belgrave line beneath the intersection of two major arterial roads in Knox, rebuilding the entire station and constructing a new bus interchange. It was completed in four weeks at a cost of $28 million. Notably, the project was overseen by Ian Dobbs, who ran the Public Transport Corporation at the time and now heads up the new Public Transport Victoria authority.

“The Boronia budget comes to about $50 million today after inflation,” Dr Morton said*, “and that was a very complex project involving two six-lane roads and a complete station rebuild. Most grade separations involve significantly less work than that.”

Dr Morton blamed the “over-inflated prices” for recent rail projects in Melbourne on a combination of poor contract supervision and the early-2000s construction boom. “But the construction industry has been doing it tough since 2010, and people now are putting their hands up for work at any reasonable price” he said. “We see a win-win here with grade separations: it puts people in work, the job can be managed to achieve a reasonable budget, and we get a huge payoff in safety and traffic flow.”

“The great thing about level crossing removals is it gets traffic moving again without attracting heaps of new travel in the way a big new road does,” Dr Morton said. “Sir Rod Eddington found the East West road link would only return 70 cents benefit for every dollar spent on it. Meanwhile, others have stressed the positive payoff from level crossing removal. By spruiking the road, the government is sucking up all that money that could be used for far greater benefit, both on level crossing elimination and on long-overdue suburban rail extensions.”

“We say to the government, take your road-lobby blinkers off and do something for all those taxpayers and voters stuck in traffic at all our suburban level crossings,” he concluded. “No-one has $5 billion today to spend on another road. But $500 million a year over 10 years is a realistic programme and would go a long way to wiping out all the level crossings in our city, while leaving some room in the budget for other essential capital works like the Doncaster and Rowville rail extensions.”

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* The ABS price indices for non-residential building construction and for road-and-bridge construction inflated by 62% and 80% respectively between 1998 and 2012. Using the more conservative 80% figure, the $28 million Boronia station project in 1998 would cost $50.4 million today in inflation-adjusted terms.