North East Link is Victoria’s real budget bin fire

Cars queuing at the end of the Eastern Freeway at Clifton Hill

The Federal Government pledging an additional $3.5 billion to the $26 billion North East Link tollway should focus the public’s attention on the massively costly but poorly-appreciated ‘dumpster fire’ spoiling the Allan Government’s Big Build, the Public Transport Users Association has said.

“The North East Link is the most expensive road in Victoria’s history and just keeps getting more so,” said PTUA President Dr Tony Morton. “Let’s not forget this is a project that was costed at $7 billion by Infrastructure Victoria in 2016, blew out to $16 billion less than 18 months later, and is now confirmed in the State Budget papers at more than $26 billion.”

“Keep in mind that if something doubles in cost, it doesn’t mean the benefits have somehow doubled as well. Even if this road does what no other road in the world has done and fulfils the promise of the 2018 business case, on current costs it’s barely returning 50 cents in the dollar for Victorians. And that doesn’t factor in that people are working from home and not travelling to workplaces as often.”

A large part of the North East Link’s cost is for widening the Eastern Freeway to up to 20 lanes, with a massive spaghetti junction by the Yarra Flats in Bulleen. Yet international evidence continues to accumulate showing that building and widening motorways does not reduce traffic congestion. “In Houston, they widened their biggest freeway to 23 lanes. Three years later, travel times were 30 per cent slower than before they added the lanes. That’s slower, not faster,” Dr Morton said. [1]

The real problem is governments and politicians have inherited a ‘set and forget’ mentality that binds them to discredited 20th century approaches to urban transport, according to the PTUA. “They keep spending vast sums on new roads like they’re on autopilot, even as our existing roads fall apart,” said Dr Morton. “City after city around the world has drowned itself in car traffic at massive cost with this approach – the real threat is we’re following Los Angeles and Houston into the traffic death spiral rather than learning from cities like Paris, Vienna and Montreal that have bucked the trend.”

While criticism of massive Big Build spending has focussed on the Suburban Rail Loop, the latest blowout on the North East Link puts this in context, Dr Morton says. “The difference in committed budget between North East Link and SRL Stage 1 is now only about 25 per cent. The first SRL tunnelling contract, for the southern section, is building 16km of tunnels at a cost of $3.6 billion. The North East Link is 7km of tunnels.”

The long term consequences of transport investment cannot be ignored, Dr Morton concluded. “Build a train line and it continues meeting new transport needs for people, literally for centuries. Imagine Melbourne without its suburban rail network – but then imagine trying to mount a business case for it in the 1870s when Melbourne had fewer than 300,000 people. The rails through Footscray Station still move more people in the busiest hour than the West Gate Bridge.”

“Expand a motorway on the other hand, and you’ve got congestion and pressure to sink even more billions of dollars into it a few short years later. That’s the treadmill we’re on with the North East Link and we can look to our peer cities for a circuit breaker.”

[1] City Observatory, 16 December 2015: “Reducing congestion: Katy didn’t“, Joe Cortright.