The Andrews Government should be putting gigantic new transport projects on hold while it properly assesses their value and takes stock of the state’s fiscal capacity, according to the Public Transport Users Association.
In the wake of the weekend’s Federal election result there is ample scope for Victoria and Canberra to work together on what all can agree are valuable initiatives, such as Airport and Geelong rail, while continuing to pluck the low-hanging fruit of everyday service improvements, the PTUA says.
But the result is a “reality check” for promises of vast sums on other projects whose merit hasn’t been adequately demonstrated.
“Last week the government could be forgiven for thinking it had its hands on the Holy Grail – a Commonwealth-State unity ticket on massive infrastructure for Victoria,” said PTUA President Dr Tony Morton. “But now that sugar rush of cash for huge projects is no longer on the table. So the Premier, Treasurer and Ministers need to refocus on what they can do with their own resources, as well as their substantial points of agreement with the Federal Coalition.”
The Morrison Federal Coalition Government and Andrews State Labor Government have bipartisan agreement on a train line to Melbourne Airport, a project Dr Morton described as “obvious and well overdue”. There is also agreement on improving train service to Geelong, although the Coalition prefers to see this as a ‘high speed rail’ project while Labor prefers to focus on improvements to reliability and capacity. “We’ve called on both parties to focus on what passengers are asking for, and for a long time that’s been not so much how fast the train is but how often it runs and whether you can get a seat. We’re hopeful the parties will find common ground soon enough.”
But Dr Morton said it was clear the state would rely on its own resources for any project beyond that, and those resources are becoming ever more constrained. “Real estate isn’t guaranteeing that stamp duty bonanza for big infrastructure spending any more,” he said. “This is not just about transport but also essential funding for schools and hospitals and police. The government would be well advised to put further big projects on hold for now, and concentrate on building a proper triple-bottom-line case for future capital works.”
Projects the government is advised to ‘go slow’ on include the $16 billion North East Link and the $50 billion Suburban Rail Loop. This would provide a pause to reassess other projects with the potential for greater benefit, such as the Melbourne Metro 2 rail tunnel from Newport to Clifton Hill, and a more thorough rollout of high-capacity signalling and rail freight initiatives.
“If we don’t shift our emphasis from big roads to a bigger better rail network, Melbourne itself will be irreparably damaged and will have to keep spending hand-over-fist to further entrench LA-style three-hour commutes,” Dr Morton said. “And when it comes to rail there’s more work to do yet to build up the west side to match the east. The western suburbs are now one of our biggest growth areas yet still a public transport desert.”
Meanwhile, much more attention was needed on local suburban buses, walking and cycling, Dr Morton said. “Half of all journeys in Melbourne are over short distances across one or two suburbs. In the inner city it’s easy to jump on a tram, but nowhere in Melbourne do buses provide anywhere near that quality of service, the way they do in lots of European and Canadian cities. In fact our buses have deteriorated in recent years, becoming slower and less reliable. Meanwhile, provision for on-road cycling is a joke.”
“We’d welcome a new effort at providing local buses that are fit-for-purpose and giving them more priority amid the single-occupant car traffic. And alongside that, funding for better footpaths and for separated bike lanes. These needs are too often lost amid the talk of big shiny things.”
Dr Morton kept the last word for a small band of Coalition MPs and their ‘desperate spruiking’ for the East West Link tollway. “Honestly, every time the Coalition has tried to sell that destructive boondoggle to the electorate they’ve had a swing against them – most recently on Saturday while the rest of the country had swings toward the Coalition,” he said.
“If the Coalition wants a big transport project they can own, why not promise that $4 billion for Doncaster Rail? After all, that was the headline project the last time the Coalition won an election in Victoria. We can even help them make sure it stacks up with benefits worth a lot more than 45 cents in the dollar. Sometimes you can actually give the people what they want without wasting money.”